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Torah Commentary
Pinchas (July 11, 2015)

The Daughters of Zelophehad: Thinking Outside the Tent

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

IT’S VERY TEMPTING to turn this into a feminist manifesto. Indeed, there are nearly 1,000 men identified by name in the Torah but fewer than 200 women. The fact that we know the names of all five of Zelophehad’s daughters is significant, and they are referred to by name not once but several times. The presenting issue is that Zelophehad, a member of the generation of Israelites who departed from Egypt under Moses’ leadership, had died during the 40 years in the wilderness. He had no sons and five daughters (but there is no mention of a wife/mother). Now a census is being taken in order to apportion the Land among the tribes and clans. The projected allotment of the Land, based upon this census in which only men were counted, would have deprived the clan of Manasseh of the share due to Zelophehad. If he’d had sons, they would have been counted, but his daughters (Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah) were not to receive a portion according to the distribution equation.

It is worth remembering that this is all merely in preparation for inhabiting the Land. The Israelites were yet to possess the Land. But this brave quintet foresaw that in an agricultural society, being landless would mean a powerless, marginal status. Wanting to prevent such, the five daughters approach Moses and his executive leadership to appeal for special consideration of their situation.

I have great personal admiration for these women who are willing to act boldly and take an enormous personal risk rather than accept morally wrong destiny imposed upon them simply because of their gender. They do not resort to treachery or deception, as is often the style of other biblical women. Rather, they state their request to inherit what would have been their father’s land portion in direct and unambiguous terms. Moses could have reacted in a number of ways, all of which would have sent the women away defeated. He could have said, “You have no right even to speak to me,” or “as women you have no right to property,” or “the law is the law and it must be followed.” Instead, Moses again demonstrates his remarkable leadership by recognizing the validity of their plea and the enormous consequences of this decision. Also acting boldly and taking a risk, Moses brings this conundrum to God. God could have reacted in the same hypothetical ways as described above for Moses.

Instead, God affirms that the daughters’ plea is just. Their immediate objective was to receive what was due to their father and would have been theirs had they been sons. But their effect goes far beyond being recognized as legitimate heirs and even for sparking the creation of inheritance law. (Again here, “wife” is not referenced…curious!)

While their right to inherit is validated, their marriage prospects soon would be limited to within their tribe while all other women were permitted inter-tribal marriages. So much for a feminist manifesto!

Therefore, the presenting issue of this specific situation highlights a deeper fundamental flaw and injustice of the proposed land distribution. But the underlying issue is that women were not recognized as legitimate heirs. The daughters of Zelophehad teach us that the courage to confront unfairness can bring about a systemic change with far-reaching implications and a more perfect social order.

Shabbat Shalom!

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