The Daughters of Zelophehad: Power and Uniqueness

Zelophehad's daughters call to us to take hold of life with our own hands.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The story in parashat Pinchas about Zelophehad's five daughters--Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Numbers 27:1-11) -- encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do
in order to affirm their rights with dignity. Numbers 26 describes a census taken of all males over the
Torah Women's Commentaryage of 20 (v. 2). As part of the list of the various clans, we read that "Zelophehad ... had no sons, only daughters" (v. 33). As the census was concluded, God instructs Moses: "Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares" (v, 53). "Among these" refers to the males listed in the census; hence, we can conclude that Zelophehad's daughters were not counted in the census and also were not to receive any land as inheritance.

We might expect that women, heirs to Egyptian slavery and then put under law that frequently favors men, might react by keeping silent, by accepting as natural the rule decreed for them to follow. We might expect women in those days to stay close to their tents, remain out of sight, and not go far from their families. So how and why did Zelophehad's daughters write a new chapter in history? First, they dared to "go out" from their living place, from their social space, from the destiny imposed on them. The text states: "The daughters of Zelophehad ... came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (27:1-2).

Let's imagine the scene: the Israelite camp is formed of tribes, each of whom has a determined place, with the Tabernacle in the middle; and in the center stand the main authority figures, all of them men: Moses, the priest Eleazar, and the chieftains. Imposing as this structure may have been, the five sisters decide to claim their rights. Together, they go out of their tents, without being called by anyone, to the place where only the high-ranking men congregate, to the place where the Tablets from Sinai rest in the Ark, to the place of holiness and authority, to a place where women did not have authority. These men must have been overwhelmed when they saw such a startling, unprecedented situation!

But this is not all that the five sisters do. They not only come forth, but also they speak with determination: "Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against God but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!" (Numbers 27:3-4).

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Rabbi Silvina Chemen serves Kehilat Beth El, the first Conservative congregation in Latin America, and she is in charge of the Schlichei Tzibur School, a national program of the Argentine Jewish Communities Association.

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