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Parashat Pinchas 5759/1999
Womens' Rights in Parashat Pinchas
In Praise of the Daughters of Zelophehad
Dr. Abraham Zimmels
The Helena and Paul Schulmann
Center for Basic Jewish Studies
At first glance the story about the daughters of Zelophehad, which we read in Parshat Pinchas, appears out of place. The verses preceding it (ch. 26) take the census of the Israelites and those after (27:12-23) relate how Moses was told that his task was completed and Joshua was to be appointed. But the Sages have pointed out that this section is indeed connected with what preceded.
In the previous section it says, "Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares (be-nahla), according to the listed names ... The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made (yinhalu) according to the listings of their ancestral tribes" (Num. 26:52-55). Eleven verses later we read how the daughters of Zelophehad came forward and stood before Moses and Eleazar the priest, and before the chieftains and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and presented their petition before the dignitaries of the people. The main substance of their request was: why should our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no sons? Therefore they asked for a holding (ahuza) to be given them among their father's kinsmen. Moses then presented their petition before the supreme judge, the Lord.
Perhaps the daughters of Zelophehad had been influenced by Rachel and Leah. When Jacob addressed them to obtain their consent to leave the homestead of their father Laban and return to Canaan, these two matriarchs responded, "Have we still a share (heleq ve-nahla) in the inheritance of our father's house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price" (Gen. 31:14-15). Rachel and Leah expressed their disappointment at having been disinherited by their father, no longer having a share in the inheritance of his household.
Rachel and Leah surely were influenced by the laws in their land of origin, which gave inheritance to daughters. This is evidenced by documents found at Mari, an important cultural center in the heritage of the ancient Near East, identified as a major city on the banks of the Euphrates which thrived in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C.E.. It is also seen in Nuzi laws, Lipit-Ishtar laws, and the code of Hammurabi. All these sources support the assumption that these Mesopotamian cultures did not distinguish between male and female descendants in apportioning inheritance. Therefore, under the circumstances, the daughters of Laban saw themselves as being taken advantage of and exploited.
The daughters of Zelophehad did one better. Not only did they care about their own private inheritance, they also showed tribal and familial responsibility and made their will match the will of G-d. Their request, presented after the instructions about apportioning the land, indicates their concern to maintain their inheritance in their father's name, as follows from the laws of the Torah. The Sages commented on this (Bava Batra 119b): "The daughters of Zelophehad were clever, knew how to interpret, and were righteous. Clever, in that they spoke out at the proper time." In other words, they waited for an opportune moment, and then they made a reasonable request: "As Rabbi Samuel said in the name of Rabbi Isaac: This shows that they waited till Moses was sitting and teaching the passage on levirate marriage, as it is written (Deut. 25:5): 'When brothers dwell together...' They said to him, 'If we are considered equal with sons, give us an inheritance like sons; if not, let our father's brother marry our mother.'"
Since the Halakhah stipulates that having either a daughter or a son exempts a widow from levirate marriage, then, they reasoned, just as a son precludes the brother of the deceased from inheriting the deceased's estate and that son also exempts his mother from levirate marriage, so too it should be with respect to a daughter. "They knew to interpret, for they said if he had had a son, we should not have spoken up ... and righteous, for they were wed only to men befitting them."
The daughters of Zelophehad understood that the law of levirate marriage (Deut. 25) and of redemption (Lev. 25) were intended to prevent an inheritance from being erased from the tribe's original boundaries and to preserve the name of the clan on its lands. Thus, in the book of Ruth, Boaz announced his intention to redeem the fields of his kinsmen Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion, "so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his estate, that the name of the deceased may not disappear from among his kinsmen and from the gate of his home town" (Ruth 4:10). For this reason Prof. Abraham Malamat stressed that both Mari culture as well as biblical culture put an emphasis on preserving that which already existed, and to this end both cultures used the root n-h-l, often rendered as "to inherit," with the meaning "to preserve the ancestral nahlah". This word is also a key root in the previous chapter (26), as shown above.
The law on sons inheriting from their father is mentioned explicitly only in the laws on inheritance that were given after the daughters of Zelophehad petitioned Moses (Num. 27:8): "Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: 'If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.'" Nevertheless, the daughters of Zelophehad understood that in a case were there was a son, it was the son's right to inherit and continue the father's line. Thus it is written in the Talmud: "If a man dies, etc. That is in the case that he has no son, for if he has a son, the son takes precedence" (Bava Batra 110b). In the case where a son inherits the father, it was generally accepted for the son to take the father's place, and therefore there was no need to command this in the laws. Not so in the case of a daughter, who leaves her father's house and becomes part of her husband's tribe. Moses was unsure regarding this question and did not rule that a daughter may not inherit at all, but presented the petition to the Lord (Num. 27:5).
Here we see the wisdom of the daughters of Zelophehad, presenting their request at the proper time and giving well-founded reasons to prevent being deprived of their rights, like Rachel and Leah, and causing laws to be set forth in the Torah in order to preserve tribal property in the spirit of the laws on levirate marriage and redemption. Therefore Rabbi Nathan commented in Sifre on the verse, "Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen" (Num. 27:4): "Better the might of women than the might of men. Men say, 'Let us head back for Egypt' (Num. 14:4), and women say, 'Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen.'" Midrash ha-Gadol explains why Moses brought their case before the Lord:
Moses said, all later generations will learn from me that I ascribed the matter to a great rabbi. One can argue from the easy to the hard. Just as Moses our teacher--of whom the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household" (Num. 12:7)--did not judge the case of the daughters of Zelophehad until he had asked the Holy Spirit, all the more so ordinary people should not speak out before someone who is greater than they, nor should they exceed the bounds of the Torah and take honor to themselves... And what if you say that Moses did not know how to judge the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, since the section on inheritance had not yet been given? To that the answer is that the entire Torah was given at Sinai, and repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and gone over a third time on the plains of Moab; and that was in the fortieth year; but nevertheless, he ascribed it to a great rabbi.
Moses wisely showed the people that the law is based on G-d's will and His decisions. M. D. Cassuto, in his commentary on Exodus (pp. 180-183), elucidated the essence of this law and the difference between the Torah given Israel and the laws of other ancient peoples. The basic differencis that the latter stem from the will of the king whereas the laws of the Torah are from the mouth of G-d. The legal tradition of the ancient Near East, in all its varieties, was secular, not religious. It was founded on accepted practice and pertained to the will of the king. Indeed Hammurabi himself turned to gods, but this was only so that they would reward those who kept the law and punish those who violated it. The laws of the Torah are not given in the name of kings, nor are they given even in the name of Moses as the leader of the Israelites; rather, they are the moral and religious instruction in matters of law that were given by the G-d of Israel. The legal codes of the ancient Near East are concerned with granting a person what he or she deserves by the letter of the law and justice, whereas the Torah grants a person what he or she deserves even beyond the strict letter of the law and in accordance with notions of morality and fellowship, since all human beings are created in the image of G-d. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad attests to this legal tradition. The law on inheritance that emerges is a law that is related to events and the needs of the individual and the community.
Since it was the law that sons and not daughters inherit from the father, the Tannaim established a regulation that in a case where the son inherits, it is his duty to provide for the livelihood of the daughters from the father's estate and even to allot them a dowry from the father's possessions when they get married. This regulation became law, as is written in the Mishnah, Tractate Ketubbot (4.10; 13.3), and on this basis Maimonides ruled as follows in Hilkhot Ishut (20.3): "If the father dies, one should estimate how much he would have wished to give his daughter to support her, and give her accordingly." Similarly, this right is vested in the Shulhan Arukh, Even Ha-Ezer 113.1.
The daughters of Zelophehad were righteous and careful to fulfill
G-d's instruction to Moses (Num. 36:6-12). They married their
cousins and their inheritance remained in the holdings of their
father's clan. They were admirable both in word and in deed.
Who knows if the daughters of Zelophehad are not to be credited
for the verse in proverbs: "The wisest of women builds her
house" (Prov. 14.1)?
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