When describing the voluntary donations to the Mishkan, Parshat Vayakhel informs us that both ‘men and women, all whose hearts moved them’ (Shemot 35:22,29) made contributions, which included the different coloured wool that was spun by the women (35:25-26). But as Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Ta’am V’Daat on Shemot 35:26) points out, despite the beauty of the message that both men and women gave to the Mishkan, there is a legalistic question that must be addressed.
Mishna Ketubot (4:4) informs us that מעשה ידיה (literally, ‘the output of [a woman’s] hand) belongs to her husband, which is accepted in lieu for all the financial obligations that a husband has towards his wife as outlined in the Ketubah. In fact, Rambam (Ishut 21:1) specifically refers to the wool spun by the women in the wilderness as the type of product that would technically be owned by the husband and not the wife. If so, asks Rabbi Sternbuch, surely the donation of the wool was, in some way, ultimately a donation of the men and not the women?
The answer he cites is brilliant, and even more brilliant by the fact that it comes from an early 18th century female Torah scholar, Rivka Itzkovits (neé Rapapport), who also happened to be the wife of R’ Yitzchak of Volozhin and the mother of R’ Chaim of Volozhin (amongst others).
Rabbanit Rivka explains that while it is true that halakha assigns the מעשה ידיה of a woman to her husband, this is only in cases where her husband is financially supporting her (which, by the way, has significant applications today where women earn their own money and may not consider themselves to be financially dependent on their husbands). But when the Jewish people were in the מדבר (wilderness), the women were not supported by their husbands. Instead, מן (manna) was provided from heaven. Thus, as long as the men were not supporting the women, the women had full ownership of their מעשה ידיה which is why it is totally appropriate for their gifts to be seen as theirs and theirs alone.
What this insight teaches us is that the life of the מדבר was ‘miraculous’ in more ways than one. Not only did the people eat מן from heaven, but this reality created social and economic equality.
There are certain elements of life in the מדבר that we may not wish to restore, but today, as women continue to be financially independent, it seems that they are not as dissimilar to their great ancestors as we may think.