Commentary on Matot — Mas-ei

Bettijane Eisenpreis

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

Daughters are not Sons

They said, “The Lord commanded my lord to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot; and my Lord was further commanded by the Lord to assign the shares of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now if they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry; thus our allotted portion will be diminished.”

Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Does the phrase “the daughters of Zelophehad” sound familiar? If it does, it is because this is not the first time we have met these ladies. In Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 27:1-11), we were formally introduced to them. There are five daughters– Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. They told Moses that their father had died without a male heir and pleaded, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Moses takes their case to the Lord, who agrees that they have a just case. As a result, the five daughters are allowed to inherit their father’s property. End of story?

Apparently not. Because, eleven chapters later, here come the daughters again. And this time, they don’t come off nearly as well as they did the first time. It seems there’s a catch. The heads of the families that make up the clan of Machir, to which the daughters belong, come to Moses with a complaint. If the daughters marry out of their clan, their shares will go to their husbands’ clans and not to the clan of Machir, their father’s clan. Moses agrees and tells the daughters that they may only marry within their own clan. In other words, they have to marry their own relatives. Ugh!

That “ugh!” was my first reaction, but I had to remind myself that this commentary was not written in 2017 and can’t be judged by today’s standards.

Let’s look at the first portion, when the daughters got their inheritance. The daughters did not receive a piece of land, free and clear. They were given “a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen.”

Those of us who live in New York have a point of reference. Suppose the daughters lived in Manhattan today. They would not own their apartment, free and clear. Theirs would not resemble a condo, where they own the apartment and just pay a monthly fee to the super and the people who keep the common areas shipshape. Theirs would be more like a co-op. They own shares in the corporation that owns the whole building, and if they want to sell, they have to get the approval of the board, which in this case would be the heads of the tribe.

This makes it more understandable. The tribe doesn’t want someone walking off with part of their land.

Makes sense? Yes and no.

The question is: If the owners of Zelophehad’s land were not female, would we be having this discussion? I don’t think so. The men of the tribe own their portions and, regardless of whom they marry, they are going to stay on their own land. Why wouldn’t they? They own it. So do the daughters own the land? Not really. If, when they marry out of the tribe the land goes to their husbands, then they don’t own it – the husband does. The land only belongs to them as long as they are single. When they marry within the tribe, the land stays in the tribe, not because it is theirs but because it becomes part of the husband’s property.

The first time we met the daughters, it really looked like women’s liberation was taking place. But this parashah reminds us not to take anything for granted. History moves forward and backward, not always in a straight line.