Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Phinehas 5764/July 10, 2004

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,




The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Four Questions*


Menahem Ben-Yashar

Ashkelon College


The story of the Daughters of Zelophehad is actually two narratives –one in this week’s reading (Num. 27:1-11), and its sequel at the end of Numbers (chapter 36).Together they present two aspects and two objectives of land inheritance in biblical Israel:  to provide the infrastructure for the maintenance of oneself and one’s family, and to preserve the names of the family’s ancestors, thus preserving the tribal-patriarchal structure of ancient Israelite society.  The name of a person with no heirs clearly is not preserved through the generations and thus in a way becomes erased from the annals of the people. In order to prevent this from happening, we have the law of levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10); and when a man has no sons but only daughters (who generally do not inherit land, since they will join in the land of their husbands), the law of the daughters of Zelophehad provides the solution. [1]

This passage is in a sense a continuation or appendix to the census of the people in chapter 26, whose purpose is explicitly stated after its summation:   “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names” (Num. 26:53).   Since the census list for the tribe of Manasseh mentions Zelophehad, and even includes his five daughters by name (Num. 26:33), the problem was already hinted at and naturally would need to be raised explicitly in the following chapter, where the solution is also given.

To the question whether among the tens of thousands of Israelites in the wilderness there were not other families that only had daughters, we would answer:   it is quite possible, and they too might have come and made a claim had it not been that the daughters of Zelophehad preceded them in taking the initiative. [2]

Moreover, one could raise a question with respect to the first census at the beginning of the book of Numbers (ch. 1). This census was taken close to the time of the exodus from Egypt and the theophany at Mount Sinai, with the intent to provide a guide for apportioning shares of land in Israel, were it not for the sin of the spies causing the conquest of the land to be delayed. How was it that there were no daughters then who, having no brothers, demanded that land be apportioned to them?  It is quite likely that there were such daughters, but before the sin of the spies one could have expected Moses to be the one who would lead the people into the land of Canaan, and he would solve by divine instruction any problems that might arise in apportioning the land.  Forty years later, after the decree that Moses would not live to enter the land, the daughters of Zelophehad appealed to him on the eastern bank of the Jordan River to provide a solution in advance of the problems that might arise in apportioning the land in Canaan.

In Bava Batra (119b) the Sages called the daughters of Zelophehad “wise, righteous, and interpreters of the Law,” on the basis of their wise and brave appearance before Moses’ court.   Could they be called feminists?   The gemara explains in detail:  “Why wise?   Because they came to Moses when he was explaining the laws of levirate marriage and said to him, ‘If we are considered as sons, give us shares like sons; and if not, grant us levirate marriage.’   Why interpreters of the Law?   Because they said to Moses, ‘If Zelophehad had had a son, we would have said nothing.’   We learn from this that they did not request shares in the land for their own sake, but for the sake of preserving their father’s name.  They were not feminists, rather they were loyal protectors of the patriarchal regime, like Tamar in her day and Naomi and Ruth in theirs.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is one of four passages in the Torah in which Moses was faced with a legal-halakhic question which required him to inquire of G-d for a solution, and the Lord’s solution became a legal precedent. [3]

Two of these passages deal with negative matters.  The first deals with the sinner who blasphemed G-d, and it was not known what punishment he should be given (Lev. 24:10-23). The Torah had forbidden cursing G-d (Ex. 22:27), [4] but the punishment to be given such a person had not yet been spelled out.   The punishment of being stoned by the entire community was explained by Philo (Life of Moses 2.192-208) as having two reasons:  1) measure for measure:   the heart of the blasphemer was hard as stone, therefore he was to be killed by stoning; 2) the entire community could participate in the stoning and thus express their repugnance towards the person and his deed.  The sin itself Philo explained in terms of the differences between the religious traditions of the blasphemer’s Egyptian father and Israelite mother:   The Egyptians, well-endowed with blessings of the earth, worshipped the earth, whereas the Hebrews worshipped Heaven, as the symbol of the Omnipotent G-d.

The second “negative” query concerns the person who was found gathering wood (Heb. mekoshesh) on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).   The Torah had already stated and reiterated that the punishment for desecrating the Sabbath was death (Ex. 31:10-15; 35:2).  So what was there for Moses to ask?   According to the Sages (Sifre Numbers, 114, p. 123, and parallel texts), and according to Philo (loc. sit. 217), Moses asked what method of execution should be used for the person who gathered wood, and he was answered: stoning.  Another possible interpretation explaining Moses’ uncertainty is as follows:  assuming that mekoshesh meant gathering and uprooting, [5] it had not yet been clarified if this was real work for which one was liable to the death sentence.   Philo (loc. sit., 218-220) viewed gathering wood with great severity; it was not only an action belonging to the realm of the profane and done for the sake of livelihood, but also used to fuel a fire, which lay at the foundation of most of the categories of work and therefore was especially forbidden on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:3).

The two positive passages in which the law was determined through asking a question and receiving an answer concern Pesah Sheni (Num. 9:1-14) and the daughters of Zelophehad.   In both instances the argument presented by the plaintiffs used the same verb: “why must we be debarred (Heb. lama niggara)” from celebrating the Passover (Num. 9:7), and “let not our father’s name be lost (Heb. lama yiggara) to his clan” (Num. 27:4).  In both the fear was that they become excluded from the community of Israel, who worshipped the Lord.  The pascal sacrifice is the offering of the Covenant, “the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites,” and being debarred from it was like being debarred from the community.   Indeed, it is said, “that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the Lord’s offering” (Num. 9:13).  In biblical Israel also someone whose name was not preserved on his share of land would become cut off from the recorded annals of his people.

In Philo’s opinion (loc. sit., 236-237), Moses would not have inquired of the Lord had he not taken the following arguments into consideration:  on the one hand, the devotion of the daughters of Zelophehad to their father’s honor and preserving his name was praiseworthy; on the other hand, only males were entitled to receive a share in the land, as a prize and compensation for risking their lives in battle, and it was not customary for women to go to war.

In Life of Moses (2.192-245) Philo related to these same four passages when discussing Moses’ role as a prophet:  conveying the Lord’s eternal laws to the people, and responding to one-time needs of the people.  These four passages reflect an intermediate kind of role:  responding to a one-time situation which provides guidelines for the law.

In the Aramaic translation of the Torah made in the land of Israel, such as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, these four passages are seen as praising Moses and instructing future courts in Israel.  Moses was considered praiseworthy for not being ashamed to say that he did not know and turning to a higher authority; this was seen as an example to be followed by the judges of Israel.   Moreover, the Aramaic translations from Israel distinguish between the two types of passages:  in the two negative instances it is written that the sinner was put in custody, i.e., detainment, to teach us that his sentence was not passed immediately after he committed the sin.  From this we conclude that in capital cases judges should be restrained, taking their time and not acting hastily, on the chance that witnesses or arguments to the credit of the accused might be found, since the death sentence is irreversible.  In the two positive passages there is not the slightest hint that the parties had to wait for judgment, from which we learn that in civil suits judges should be quit to decide.

The midrash in Sifre Numbers (par. 68, p. 63; par. 114, p. 123; par. 133, p. 177) discusses the three passages from Numbers, which comprise three of the four at hand.  The trend in this midrash is to minimize the halakhic doubts and innovations in these passages, the underlying assumption being that the statement of the general rule for all the commandments was given at Sinai, and their details also at Sinai or from the Tent of Meeting, [6] hence there was no room for questions and innovations.  Therefore, with respect to all of them R. Hidka Simeon of Shikmon, speaking in the name of one of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, said two things:   first, that the main points in the three cases were known to Moses, and he only asked the Lord for the details of execution; secondly, that these details as well ought to have been said from the outset, directly by Moses, like the rest of the laws of the Torah, except that “one passes on merit to the deserving and blame to the reprehensible.”  In other words, the two negative passages were intended to denounce the sinners and to warn us against doing as they did, and the others to praise the righteous who held the commandments and the land dear, to set them as an example – especially the daughters of Zelophehad, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself praised with the words, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just” (Num. 27:7);  they speak correctly, and you, Moses, ought to listen to them.   “Happy is the man whose words the Almighty acknowledges” (Sifre Numbers, par. 134, p. 177).

* I would like to thank Prof. Rimon Kasher, who directed me to several of the ideas and sources for this article.

[1] For another solution of this problem, see I Chronicles 2:34-35, and the genealogy given there, vv. 35-41.

[2] We have no evidence of land held by women, save for the daughters of Zelophehad.  See Y. Aharoni, Erez Israel be-Tekufat ha-Mikra, Jerusalem 1963, p. 302.  [=The land of the Bible : a historical geography trans. from the Hebrew and ed. by A.F. Rainey] A possible exception is Timnat Serah (loc. sit., p. 209).

[3] To this list one could add the claim made by the clan of Gilead from the tribe of Manasseh, Numbers chapter 36.  There, however, it does not say explicitly that Moses inquired of the Lord, rather that Moses answered directly at the Lord’s bidding (Num. 36:5-6).

[4] If E- lohim is a name of G-d, as rendered in the Septuagint and the Vulgate, and the text is not referring to judges, as the Aramaic translations (including the Peshitta) and most Jewish exegetes read the text.

[5] According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, mekoshesh means ripping off and uprooting.   See the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 96b; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 5.1, 22d (1289).

[6] See Sifra at the beginning of Parashat be-Har; BT Zevahim 115b; Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah min ha- Shamayim be-Aspaklaria shel ha-Yahadut, LondonNew York, 1965, p. 89.