The daughters of Zelophehad—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah—are first mentioned in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers. Their bold and necessary petition to Moses changed the laws of inheritance so that they would be more just for women. Zelophehad’s daughters have served as an inspiration to many and their tenacity and determination have much to teach us today.
The daughters of Zelophehad’s request comes after a census has once again been taken of the Jewish males, tribe by tribe. Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, died and had no male heir. As a result, the laws of inheritance as they then stood meant that as his daughters could not take possession of his share of land, it would be lost forever. Recognizing that this state of affairs was untenable, the five sisters come before Moses, the tribal chieftains and the entire assembly at the entrance of the Tabernacle and plead their case. They make note of the fact that Zelophehad did not die as a result of Korach’s rebellion but died simply of his own sin, and seeing that he did not have a son, his hereditary portion would be lost completely. The sisters petition Moses to allow them to inherit their father’s rightful share, so that his name would not be lost to the Jewish people. Moses immediately refers the sisters’ case to G-d who emphatically sides with them. From this point forward, the laws of inheritance are changed so that in the case that a man dies and does not have a son, his land is rightfully passed to his daughters. The law would be later amended such that a woman who inherits her father’s share must marry a man within the tribe to which she belongs so that the land can remain within that tribe. In other words, if a woman marries outside her tribe, her land does not accompany her.
The daughters of Zelophehad are unique in many ways and their request is quite revolutionary. From the very beginning of their narrative, it is clear that these women aren’t afraid to assert themselves and demand what is rightfully theirs within a social structure in which such bold claims by women were incredibly rare. Furthermore, they come before Moses at the entrance to the Tabernacle, the place of greatest sanctity and authority within the camp and petition Moses directly and in unison. Indeed, they have fleshed out their argument so brilliantly that Moses is unable to rule directly but must refer their petition to G-d who rules in their favor. Although Zelophehad’s daughters only appear a couple of times in the Torah, they are unique in that they are each named. Numerous incidents exist when women in the Torah specifically and Tanach generally are not named, and the rabbinic literature often fills in this void. The fact that the women are here individually named is an unequivocal indication of their immense significance.
Throughout rabbinic literature, the daughters of Zelophehad are mentioned numerous times. The rabbis note that each woman was meritorious in her own right and that they were incredibly wise and learned women, as evidenced by their familiarity and comfort with matters of Jewish law. One tradition holds that none of the daughters married before the age of forty, as each waited until an appropriate match was found for them and although they married at a more advanced age than their contemporaries, they each had children, owing to their righteousness.
One particularly poignant Midrash, which can be found in Sifre, the classic Halakhic Midrash on the Book of Numbers imagines a conversation amongst the daughters of Zelophehad as the implications of the laws of inheritance become apparent to them. They note that it is man’s nature to have compassion for men over women but G-d has compassion upon all of His creations, men and women equally, and therefore there was no reason that they shouldn’t fight for their rightful claim, as G-d would have compassion upon them.
The daughters of Zelophehad have served as a tremendously important and empowering example for women across the denominational spectrum as women’s ritual and communal participation has increased dramatically over the past several decades, whether that be women’s ability to become rabbis in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements or the increased ritual participation for women within Orthodox Judaism. Women have access to Jewish learning on levels previously unavailable, and Orthodoxy in particular has, as of late, seen a huge influx in institutions dedicated to advanced Torah and Talmud study for women. Some Orthodox women are also beginning to form womens prayer groups. Zelophehad’s daughters, though their appearance in our Torah is brief, powerfully demonstrate the tremendous impact upon a community that people can have when they stand up and claim what is theirs. May we all learn from their example.
This photo was used, with permission, from Mirah Curzer Photography.