"The Daughters of Zelophehad" (from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons," 1908)

The Daughters of Zelophehad: Power and Uniqueness

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

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

The story in Parashat Pinchas about Zelophehad’s five daughters — Mahlah, Noa, 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 age 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, Noa, 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).

Let’s analyze what this text reflects about these women. First, note that these women know their law and history. They use the fact that their father was not involved in Korach‘s rebellion (Numbers 16) as evidence to support his–and their–claim to the land. They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission–in God’s law! But because they consider God’s law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments.

How does Moses react? The following verse states: “Moses brought their case before God” (27:5). Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by unequivocally supporting the sisters’ demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances (27:6-8). Thus, the sisters’ claim leads to the law of inheritance’s being changed forever.

As stated above, a key to the sisters’ success is their full awareness of God’s laws and the people’s history and story. They insist on change by engaging Israelite traditions effectively, something the rabbinic sages recognized when they described the women.

According to the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 119b), Zelophehad’s daughters were wise (chachamot), astute interpreters (darshanyiot), and pious (rachmanyiot): “wise” because they spoke in the precise moment when the decision was issued; “interpreters” because they in essence said, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken–because he would have the inheritance”; and “pious” because they did not want to marry men who were not worthy.

The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them. It encourages us to think differently— and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands, to move from the place that the others have given us–or that we have decided to keep because we feel immobile–and to walk, even to the most holy center, to where nobody seems to be able to go.

After all, nothing is more sacred than life itself and the fight for what we believe is worthy. Thus, this parashah inspires us to discover that we too have the ability to know what is right for ourselves and what our rights ought to be. When we believe in our capacity to shape our history, to the point of being able to change even a law that came from the Revelation at Sinai, then we pay a tribute to Zelophehad’s daughters.

In our era, we can see this legacy in women such as Judith Eisenstein, who was the first to become a bat mitzvah in 1922, and in the first women ordained as rabbis: Regina Jonas (in 1935), Sally Priesand (Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973), Sandy Sasso (Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974), and Amy Eilberg (Jewish Theological Seminary in 1985). Like Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, they and the many other courageous women who followed in their footsteps came forth and opened the future for all women seeking to reclaim their Jewish inheritance in new and powerful ways.

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).

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