Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Pinehas 5770/ July 3, 2010

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The Daughters of Zelophehad—Legal and Emotional Aspects


Shalom Colin*



The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is split into two sections in the book of Numbers:   one, in the weekly reading of Phinehas, in which the daughters of Zelophehad lodge their complaint:  “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son” (Num. 27:4); the other, at the end of Masei, in which the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh raise a problem that would result from the solution given to the daughters of Zelophehad:   “their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion” (Num. 36:3).

Modern studies in psychology and the attribution of names would indicate that the two parts of the story are separate narratives, each resulting from an event that preceded it and narrated in the order in which the events took place.  The sociological difference between the stories lies in the question whether a person’s most fundamental allegiance is to the family or the tribe. [1]   Is the autonomous family just part of the tribe, or is the tribe composed of a group of families?   In other words, what is the basic kernel of the people?

The language in which the daughters of Zelophehad cast their claim in Parashat Phinehas is utterly different from the language of the argument made by the tribal leaders in Parashat Masei. The daughters of Zelophehad sought to preserve the name of their father, whereas the tribal leaders sought to preserve the tribe’s real-estate options.

The emotional language of the daughters of Zelophehad

The daughters of Zelophehad were familiar with the law that land passes by inheritance to sons but not to daughters, for it is a law of nature:  men are stronger than women; they can till the earth, defend it and use it to sustain the family.  Understanding this, the daughters of Zelophehad cast their argument not in legal terms, but in emotional ones, emphasizing sentiments and relations within the family.  Interpersonal relations are the most important parameter for perpetuating the family.   In presenting their argument, they did not evade any authority concerning the matter they raised.   All potentially concerned parties were present among those addressed, and thus their words were heard first hand and not through a third party:  “They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 27:2).   The principle subject addressed was not material property but preservation of the memory of their father as part of the system of familial relations:  “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son” (Num. 27:4).  Their statement was brief, concise, focused, and non-repetitive.  Immediately afterwards they proposed a practical solution for preserving the inheritance as family property:  “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (ibid.).   Their solution did not lay claim to property that belonged to someone else, nor did it place another person in the position of stealing property belonging to someone else.  They kept their words brief, did not repeat themselves or stipulate any conditions, and they proposed a practical solution.

Studies done over the past 40 years of the use of emotional language in family therapy, a branch of psychology, have shown language to be a basic building block for establishing and maintaining the family unit.   From the coaching given family counselors and from various studies we can learn several principles regarding the proper way to speak in such circumstances:  not to attack, not to criticize, to refer to “myself” in “I” sentences, explaining the reason for one’s feelings, clarifying needs and expectations, ascertaining attention, not reading other’s thoughts, and not exaggerating.

The daughters of Zelophehad employed all of the above.  Underlying their claim was the fear that they might remain unmarried, [2] nevertheless their listeners did not feel under attack.   Apparently the home in which they were raised (many years as orphans) was managed in this idiom.   This may well account for the respect they felt for their father, whose memory they wished to preserve, even though "he died for his own sin.”

The legalistic language of the chieftains of Manasseh

The argument given by the tribal chieftains of Manasseh was couched in legalistic terms.  They referred to the tribal property, not to themselves.  In every mention of this property (both with respect to inheritance and jubilee) they repeated their argument, formulating it once in the affirmative and once in the negative.  They specified who will gain inheritance and who will lose:  “their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry” (Num. 36:3); and what will happen in the jubilee:  “their share will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their share will be cut off from the ancestral portion of our tribe” (Num. 36:4).   Moses, as well, in presenting the Lord’s word, was redundant in what he said:  “No inheritance of the Israelites may pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelites must remain bound each to the ancestral portion of his tribe” (Num. 36:7); and again, “Thus no inheritance shall pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion” (Num. 36:9).  They did not present their remarks before all the interested parties; Eleazar the priest, who had been present at the meeting with the daughters of Zelophehad, as well as the daughters of Zelophehad themselves and the entire community were all absent.

Reliance on legal precedents

Why did the members of the tribe of Manasseh hold off with their claim until the end of Parashat Masei, and not bring it up immediately after the daughters of Zelophehad were granted inheritance, in this week's reading of Phinehas?

At the end of Parashat Matot the Torah tells us about Jair son of Manasseh claiming his inheritance.  The family pedigree is spelled out in I Chronicles (2:21-22): [3]

Afterward Hezron had relations with the daughter of Machir father of Gilead – he had married her when he was sixty years old – and she bore him Segub; and Segub begot Jair; he had twenty-three cities in the land of Gilead.

After Hezron, father of Caleb, took to wife the daughter of Machir son of Manasseh (perhaps after having become a widower), Segub was born to him, and the latter had Jair.   Thus Jair was the fifth generation after Judah (Jair son of Segub, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah). [4]   Two commentators on this passage [5] rely on Chronicles’ word that the Jair son of Manasseh mentioned in Parashat Matot (as well as Deut. 3:14) was the same as Jair son of Segub of the tribe of Judah.   The Talmud (Yevamot 62b), discussing the inheritance of grandsons as being like that of sons, views Jair as the grandson of the daughter of Machir and of Hezron. [6]

This explains the reason for the tribal chieftains of Manasseh suddenly awakening to the issue and addressing Moses in patently legal terms.  Jair son of Manasseh,” who actually was from the tribe of Judah, had taken over land of the tribe of Manasseh by virtue of his grandmother having been from the tribe of Manasseh.  It turns out that in the first apportionment of inheritance to the Israelites on the eastern side of the Jordan, the marriage of a daughter from the tribe of Manasseh to a son of the tribe of Judah had led to transfer of ownership of land belonging to the tribe of Manasseh to a member of another tribe.

Thus we see that there is order in the Torah and a reason for the two passages being distant from each other, and there is chronological significance to these episodes.  The daughters of Zelophehad turned to Moses after he had instructed that the land be apportioned among the tribes by ancestral household.  The settlements established by “Jair son of Manasseh” from the tribe of Judah, described after land had been apportioned on the eastern side of the Jordan, were viewed by the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh as the first application of the instruction that had been given in the wake of the complaint lodged by the daughters of Zelophehad, and appeared to them as a legal precedent that would lead to members of other tribes taking over their land.  This accounts for their appeal to Moses at the end of Parashat Masei.

The emotional argument or the legal argument?

The daughters of Zelophehad had married their relatives, and these are mentioned as part of the basis for their request for inheritance, namely “among our father’s kinsmen” (Num. 27:4). Also Parashat Mase notes that Zelophehad’s daughters were married to sons of their uncles” (Num. 36:11).  The rule of the daughters of Zelophehad is mentioned twice in the gemara (Bava Batra 119-120; Ta`anit 30b).  In both places, abrogation of the marriage restriction (requiring female heirs to marry within their tribe) is seen as cause for everlasting rejoicing of the entire people of Israel, rejoicing that is celebrated on the 15th of Ab.   Meshekh Hokhmah, the Torah commentary of Rabbi Meir Simha of Dvinsk, comments on this (Num. 36:1):

Apparently they understood that this could not be maintained forever, for it would result in separatism among the Israelites, rather than their being joined together, and would thus be greatly destructive to national survival and development.

In both passages of gemara (following Rabbi Judah and Rabba), the restriction on inter-tribal marriage was interpreted as a temporary measure intended only for the daughters of Zelophehad and others of their generation.  The law governing daughters inheriting in cases where there were no sons (“If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter” – Num. 27:8), concludes with a special comment by the Lord:  “This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites” (Num. 27:11).   This law concerning daughters inheriting was established for future generations without any further restrictions, as Nahmanides noted on this verse:  “Being the law of procedure for the Israelites meant that this law was to hold for future generations, not merely for the generation settling the land.”   The importance this held for future generations, was deduced by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Resp. Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 15, par. 52) from Rashba’s responsa:

This is a stern warning not to uproot someone from their inheritance.   From this we learn that he who argues that this is permissible, on the grounds that the law of the sovereign authority is to be obeyed – such a person is mistaken and a thief.   For when it comes to inheritance of the land, even though this is a question of property, one may not uproot a person from his inheritance, for it says in the passage on inheritance of the land:   “This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites,” meaning that this law is immutable, and no restrictions apply.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is split into two sections.  In the first, emotional arguments are raised; in the second, legal ones.   The two sections are separated one from the other, since the legal arguments required legal precedents, and these did not emerge immediately.  Interestingly, the section that proved stronger and more lasting over the generations, both in history and halakhah, was actually the emotional one, the greater wisdom of the women prevailing over the legal hairsplitting of the men. [7]


* I wish to thank Dr. Rahamim Melamed-Cohen and Rabbi Uri Desberg for their comments and Drorli Reiner for insights.

[1] Cf. Aviah ha-Cohen, “Le-Va`ayat ha-Seder be-Sefer Be-Midbar,” Megadim 9, Sept. (Tishre) 1989, pp. 27-39.

[2] Bava Batra 119b:  “Even the youngest of them was over forty when she married.”

[3] See the study by Aaron  Demsky, “Reshimat ha-Yahas shel Menashe ve-Nahalat Milkah bat Zelophehad,” Eretz Yisrael 16 (1982), pp. 70-75.

[4] There are some commentators, among them the Vilna Gaon, who undermine the basis for this assertion by maintaining that these were two different persons; thus they do not identify the Jair mentioned in Parashat Matot with the Jair mentioned in Chronicles.

[5] Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides.

[6] Rashi on Yevamot:   Rather, since the leaders who issued from Hezron came from the daughter of Machir, we conclude that the sons of his daughter are considered as his descendants.

[7] Women also show greater steadfastness in solving problems, as noted in Sifre 133:  “The strength of women is superior to that of men”; and Numbers Rabbah, ch. 21:   “the men broke down the fences and the women built them up.”