Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,






Dr. Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg

Associate Fellow, Albright Institute of

Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.


The five young ladies, the daughters of Zelophehad, are introduced to us in Parashat Pinhas (Numb. 27:1-11) and appear again at the end of this double Parasha (36:1-12). In both sources the girls are given their names in full, which is surprising. In so many other cases of important women, like the mother of Samson or the Shunammite, we never hear their real names. Here in the second source, there is a complaint by the family of Gilead, son of Makhir ben Manasseh, that Hashem ordered the portion of Zelophehad to be given to his daughters because he had no sons. What will happen to the tribal inheritance that they receive, asks the family? It will pass to their husbands and if they marry outside the tribe, it will be lost to Manasseh. To this Moses replies: "This is what Hashem has commanded", the daughters may marry whom they like, provided the grooms are from within the tribe of their father (36:6) and other heiresses must do the same. It is recorded that the girls obeyed this rule, they all married their cousins and presumably they all lived happily ever after. Their inheritance stayed within the tribe, but what exactly did they inherit?

They had said that their father died without sons, so why should his inheritance disappear? In response to Moses's inquiry to Hashem, the answer comes that they shall have their father's inheritance; and the general rule is announced, that where there is no son, the inheritance passes to the daughter(s), and if none, to the deceased's brother; if none to his uncle; and if none, then to the nearest kin (27:6). But, to repeat the question, what did the inheritance of their father, Zelophehad ben Hepher ben Gilead ben Makhir ben Manasseh, amount to? He was one of those who died in the Wilderness, was he entitled to a share of Canaan or Transjordan?

When the Children of Israel were ready to enter the land, a census was taken and the number of males over twenty was 601,730. Immediately afterwards it says "Amongst these you shall divide the land as an inheritance according to the number of lot you shall divide the land, according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit" (26:51-55). So the division of the inheritance refers to the 601,730 males entering Canaan and not the 603,550 leaving Egypt (2:32). Thus there would be no division of the land for Zelophehad and nothing for his daughters to inherit.

The Talmud has to face this problem. Contrary to the above assumption, the Mishnah says:"The daughters of Zelophehad took three portions by inheritance; one for their father who came out of Egypt; one portion that he had as a share with his brothers in the goods of their father Hepher; and as he was the firstborn, he got two shares of his father's goods" (Baba Batra 8:3). It seems that Zelophehad was considered to be the firstborn due to his name meaning first rupture (Gesenius 1881, DCCXI).

The Mishnah therefore takes the view that the inheritance was based on those coming out of Egypt, even to the point of including the grandfather's inheritance. The Gemara (Baba Batra 116b ff.) elaborates and points out that dividing the land according to those coming out of Egypt is the opinion of R. Josiah, while R. Jonathan said the portions were to be divided amongst those entering Canaan, based on the text of Num. 26:53 quoted above. But if so, neither Zelophehad nor his daughters would have any inheritance. To meet that difficulty, R. Shimon ben Eleazar said the portions were divided both accordingto those who entered Canaan and those who came out of Egypt, because the text continues (as above): "according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit" (26:55). This, he claims, refers to the fathers who came out of Egypt, while verse 53 refers to those who entered Canaan. The Gemara seems content to leave the matter there for the moment. What did it mean in practice?

For the sake of simplicity, let us ignore the grandfather for the moment. Zelophehad would have got one share out of 603,550 (of those leaving Egypt) of the land and his daughters would have each got one fifth of that, or about one part in 3 million. If however Zelophehad had had five sons, then they would each have got that amount plus one part out of 601,730 (of those entering) of the land. So the sons would receive one part in 3 million (from their father) plus one part in about 600,000 on their own behalf, or one part in 500,000 in total. The sons, if there had been sons, would have been six times better off than their sisters. This unequal division is possibly the result of the peculiarity of this case, and it does not seem to be the intention of the laws of inheritance. Those laws would be satisfied if the division was onlyaccording to the number of those who came out of Egypt, as indicated in the Mishnah, and then the daughters would have received the same as any sons would have done.

But that was not the Torah rule. Under the original wording, the daughters would have got nothing, as Zelophehad would have got nothing, he not having entered the land. The Gemara modifies that view and stipulates that they at least get a share of the inheritance which their father could claim as one of those leaving Egypt. That gives the daughters a modest share but much less than any sons would have received. From this we would conclude that the daughters of Zelophehad did not get such a good deal, but they did strike a blow for women's rights, even if it did not serve them as well as it served their sisters of later generations.But that is not the end of the affair. There is a further account of what happened when the land is divided under Joshua. The five girls feature again, and again by their own individual names. Their inheritance was among that in Canaan divided between the six great-grandsons or clansof Manasseh, that is Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shekhem, Hepher and Shemida (Makhir having received his portion in Transjordan, Josh.17: 1,2). The five girls are then listed by name and their original plea to Moses is now accepted by Joshua and Eleazar, the High Priest (17: 3,4).Ten portions of the land are allotted to these great-grandsons of Manasseh and the accountconcludes with the surprising statement that the daughters of Manasseh inherited an (their)inheritance among his sons (17:5,6).

The Gemara, in the name of R. Papa, takes this passage to mean that the six clans of Manasseh listed in 17:2 (as above) each got one portion and the other four went to the daughters of Zelophehad (Baba Batra 118b). What can R. Papa possibly mean? He is sayingthat each of the six clans got their portion and then, over and beyond what the grand-daughters got from the portion of their grandfather Hepher , another four portions were allocated to the girls. It can only mean that the daughters also got some portion for entering Canaan, as if they had been sons. Being girls, this is a revolutionary idea but it makes for equity because the girls are now on a par with any sons that Zelophehad might have had. It also explains why the Gemara was seemingly happy with the view of R. Shimon ben Eleazar, that the land should be divided between both those leaving Egypt and those entering Canaan. Originally it looked as if the daughters would have been far worse off than any sons of Zelophehad would have been (as calculated above), but the passage in Joshua now makes it clear, according to R. Papa, that the girls also got some portion, perhaps even a considerable one, for having been among those to enter Canaan.

This conclusion, that in this particular case the daughters of Zelophehad were able to take further shares in the land over and above the inheritance of their father and grandfather (wholeft Egypt but did not enter Canaan) demonstrates the significance of this case. It is no doubt why Moses had to refer it to Hashem (Num. 27:5) and why later the rest of Manasseh were so anxious to see that the heiresses did not marry out. And we are of the opinion thatits importance is further underlined by the fact that the daughters are referred to in each and every one of the three recitals of the case by a full list of their own individual names.