Land Distribution — Then and Now

As Jews, we must express our religious imperative to ensure equal access to land.

Commentary on Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

“Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment.” (Numbers 26:53-54)

The Israelites had the incredible luxury of being told how to build a just society before settling in a new place. The rationality and fairness of land distribution in Parashat Pinchas is remarkable and very different from the norms of land ownership currently present around the globe.

Agrarian Communities

In rural areas, particularly in developing countries, land is the source of income, sustenance, and social (and often legal) status. Approximately 45% of the world’s population (~2.7 billion people) earns its living through agriculture. More than 500 million of these people are without secure access to land.

As workers on other people’s land, many farming communities cannot depend on continued access to the land they currently farm. In places of violence and civil unrest, displaced people are often denied the right to return to the land they fled. In former communist countries, public lands have become places of dispute as families and communities strive for some access to the small amount of land up for grabs. Many countries struggling with the legacy of colonialism deal with the chaos of unstable and corrupt governments that have followed independence.

The common theme that runs through all these cases is a lack of any coherent underlying commitment to address the agricultural needs of all members of the national community. This global challenge highlights the relevance of the short passage above from this week’s Torah portion.

The underlying assumption of the text is that every family, clan, and tribe has the right to own land. Ancient Israelites, like modern communities, needed a stable place to live, eat, and earn a living. The inclusion of this text in the Torah underscores the point that land ownership is essential to the successful survival of the people.

Today, the survival of the half billion agriculturalists without ownership rights to their land continues to be in question. Unequal land distribution furthers cycles of poverty and hunger that plague communities all over the world. With an elite few owning the vast majority of land in developing countries, the disparity between rich and poor continues to increase.

The land distribution methods outlined in this section of the Torah represent a radical departure from what we see today. The fact that land is apportioned based on population size underscores the fundamental equality of every person. Every tribe began its new life on a proportionally equal footing, with the tools it needed to build a successful community. The clear starting place for every Israelite was with ownership of land — the most important resource and the most valuable gift that one generation could pass along to the next.

Zelophehad’s Daughters

In this context, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, which concludes Parashat Pinchas, furthers the point. As unmarried women whose father died and left no sons, the daughters of Zelophehad were not originally allotted any land–the initial formulation of land inheritance stipulated that land holdings only pass from father to son. The daughters of Zelophehad brought their grievance to Moses who, with God’s sanction, remedied the situation, establishing a precedent that title to land can pass from parents to children, including daughters.

The original land allotment structure would have resulted in a manifest injustice, leaving innocent women homeless. With this injustice brought to the attention of people in power, the entire system shifted to protect those whom it had initially neglected. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad comes to remind us that, once we recognize the consequences of structural and systemic injustice, once our consciences are pricked, we must change those structures and systems in order to meet the needs of those who occupy the periphery of any society.

The Israelites had a blank slate upon which to build a new society. They were lucky. Today, we face ingrained systems of wealth disparity. Because of this challenge, it is even more incumbent upon us to engage deeply in the necessary work of land reform. There are many countries that have begun to take brave steps toward land redistribution. As Jews, we must do our best to support these movements and urge our government to behave in ways that express our religious ethical imperative to ensure equal access to land.

As Shabbat brings into balance the uneven scales of our business and spiritual lives, let us help those who have fallen off the scales entirely to find a foothold and a place to call home.

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

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