Zelophehad’s Daughters

As the father of a young daughter, I often look to tradition to find qualities that are empowering to women. A great example comes from this week’s portion. The daughters of Zelophehad, a man whom we have never heard about before this portion, stand before Moses and ask for a share in their father’s inheritance. They state that their father died in the wilderness not out of an act of rebelling (such as that of Korah) but rather from his own sin, a sin which is not specified.[1] Zelophehad’s daughters asked for a portion in their father’s inheritance, as there are no sons. Moses was not sure what to do, one of only a handful of times when he turns to G-d to adjudicate. G-d tells Moses to grant Zelophehad’s daughters their father’s inheritance. We learn that a man who has no sons transfers his inheritance to his daughters.[2]

There was a concern that the land would pass from the hands of one tribe to another and thus one tribe could gain land from another. Our concerns are laid to rest when we learn at the end of the Book of Numbers that Zelophehad’s daughters married within the tribe and hence the land remained within the holdings of Manasseh.[3] Nevertheless, I find it revolutionary that women were allowed to own property in the Bible. The biblical idea was that women would pass from the domain of their fathers to the domain of their husbands, yet this is one example (another is a widow) where women were able to inherit property from a loved one.

The reason given for the inheritance to pass on to the daughters is so that the father’s name will live on. If it went to another tribesman, the father’s portion of land will be absorbed in another family, and his identity will be lost. We often see in the Torah that genealogies are listed in accordance with one’s family, the importance of the משפחה as a unit. It therefore makes sense that one’s family’s holdings must continue.

Some follow the tradition of Beit Hillel, striving to have one son and one daughter. I have no doubt that Zelophehad, even though he lived well before the time of Hillel, strove to do just that, and instead he ended up with 5 beautiful daughters. These daughters, unlike many women in the Bible, are referred to by their names. They also merited going before our great leader Moses, making a request and having that request granted not by Moses but by G-d Himself! What a great honor to be given this opportunity to speak before Moses.

I think part of the merit of the daughters was in how they handled themselves. First they drew near to Moses, not making their request from afar or through the grapevine but by approaching Moses directly. Then they stood before Moses, demonstrating to him the respect that he deserved. Next they gave background about their father, indicating that he was not one of the rebels against Moses. Then they asked a question regarding the inheritance, not for the sake of their own benefit but for their father’s. Finally they requested an inheritance-not necessarily the entire land, but a holding “amongst their father’s kinsmen.”[4] With such a thoughtful and gentle approach, how could they be denied?

The lesson we can learn from this is that when we want to get something, we need to approach someone in the right way. First we need to go face-to-face rather than relying on email, a text, a tweet or a secondary messenger. Second, we must ensure that the person has necessary background information regarding the situation. Third, it is important to indicate that the benefit that we want to receive is not just our own but rather that of others. Finally, we make the request but we do so not in a forceful, vindictive way but rather gentle and assertive. Because Zelophehad’s daughters became close (תקרבנה) to Moses, he was drawn close (ויקרב) to them when he brought their case before G-d.

Zelophehad’s daughters have much to teach us about how to achieve what we want, even if such action is unprecedented, in a calm, thoughtful and thorough way. Let us learn from their example and make it our own, conquering whatever challenges we face along our way.

[1] Rabbi Akiva posits that Zelophehad is the one who gathered wood on Shabbat, a position which is rebuked by Rabbi Ishmael.

[2] Numbers 27:8

[3] Numbers 26:10-13

[4] Numbers 27:4

One thought on “Zelophehad’s Daughters

  1. Dear Rabbi Herman,
    This is a wonderful essay!
    In preparation for the added responsibility I will have this High Holy Day season, I decided to read one or two of your blogs. Zelophehad’s Daughters is the title of one of my husband Leonard Lehrman’s compositions! I have sung it as a solo, but it was originally composed for 5 women. And it was danced as well! Here’s a link to the danced one:

    Warm regards,
    Helene Spierman (aka Helene Williams)


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