The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Struggle for Justice for Women


For those of us who view the contemporary concern with the dignity and rights of Jewish women a direct outcome of the modern feminist movement, this week’s Torah portion –Pinchas – will come as a pleasant surprise. The book of Numbers, chapter 27, verses 1-11 tells the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad. During their sojourn in the desert, Moses explained to the children of Israel how the land of Israel was to be allocated to the various tribes, but only to the male descendants. If there were no male descendants, then according to accepted practice, the brothers of the deceased were to inherit the land. The women, who had no brother, approached Moses and the leaders, and demanded a share in the land, presenting the argument, “Let not our father’s name be lost to the clan”. Moses did not know how to answer this demand. He brought their case to God, who answered, “The plea of the daughters of Zelophehad is just”. Thus were the daughters given the right to inherit the land of their father.

With their usual artfulness, our sages fill in the spaces between the words of the Biblical text, and present a lively picture of the events. The do so by answering many questions that the story raises: What gave these five women the courage to face the great leader Moses and to challenge the traditional order of inheritance? What was the exact setting for this event? What sort of a relationship did these five sisters have? What personal qualities did they have in addition to courage?

According to the midrash, their certainty that God is merciful is what gave these five women the courage to present their demand. They knew that in the patriarchal society in which they live, it is natural that men have less regard for women than they have for their own gender. In this trait men differ from God, who has mercy equally for men and for women. Therefore, if women suffer from an unjust law, it is not God’s will, but rather a result of the solidarity of men against women. The words of the sages are as follows:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad” [Numbers 27:1]: When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was to be divided among the tribes – but only for males, not for females – they gathered to take counsel. They said that the mercy of flesh and blood is not like the mercy of God. Flesh and blood is apt to be more merciful to males than to females. But He who spoke and the world came into being is different: His mercy is for males and females; His mercy is for all, as it is written, “The Lord is good for all and His mercy is over all His works” [Psalms 145:9]. (Sifrei Pinehas, 133)

In sum, in the ideal world which God created, equal justice for men and women would be the norm. Thus, it was clear to the five women that the decision-makers, Moses, Eleasar and the tribal chieftains, were not acting according to the command of imitatio dei (imitating God’s merciful qualities) in their distribution of the land.

In addition to their certainty as to the justice of their request, the fact that the women were five in number and could stand together gave them strength. Against male solidarity, they could demonstrate female solidarity. They took counsel with each other as to how to present their demand, and decided to be diplomatic. It is noteworthy that their understanding that God’s mercy extends equally to all his creatures was not the rationale they presented to the leaders. Their argument, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan”, was one that could find a sympathetic response in the ears of the male leaders. In using this tactic the women displayed an understanding of the constraints of the patriarchal society in which they lived. Rather than present an unqualified demand that daughters inherit equally with sons, they limited their demand to cases in which there are no sons. Their diplomacy enabled them to get the attention of Moses, for their demand was not a threat to the patriarchal order, but rather in accordance with the male concern for continuity.

In addition to diplomacy and solidarity, the behavior of the five women exemplified cooperation. Unlike the usual way of behaving in a hierarchical society, one particular person did not take the lead. Our sages learn this from the fact that the order of the names of the daughters of Zelophehad appears differently in two different stories in Numbers. Note the change in the order of the names Noah and Tirza in the verses quoted in the following midrash:

The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah [Numbers 27:1]. Maybe the first [mentioned] is Scripture is indeed the first? [We know this is not so because] the text [later, in Numbers 36:11] reads: Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah. (Sifrei Pinehas, 133)

Instead of appointing a spokesperson on the basis of age, appearance, articulateness, or other qualities, all the women were equal in their contribution to the success of their appeal, for each one presented part of the argument:

The daughters of Zelophehad came forward. The five of them said five things. The first said: Our father died in the wilderness. The second said: he was not of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord. The third said: but died for his own sin. The fourth said: And he left no sons. The fifth said: Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan. (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 27, paragraph 773)

The women displayed additional qualities to those of diplomacy, solidarity and cooperation; wisdom, exegetical ability and righteousness. They presented their demand at the appropriate moment, when Moses was teaching about the obligation of a man to marry his brother’s widow if she has no male child (levirate marriage), and did so by showing the absurdity of their situation:

It is taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women; they were exegetes; they were righteous. They were exceedingly wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment… for just then, Moses was engaged in interpreting the passage on levirate marriages… (Baba bathra 119b)

Moses said, “A daughter cannot inherit.” They asked him, “Why?” He said, “Because you are females.” They said to him, “And this is what you said, Moses. Since the male inherits, let our mother enter into a levirate marriage with our father’s brother so that she can give birth to a male who will inherit.” Moses said to them, “She cannot marry her deceased husband’s brother, because she has daughters.” They said to him, “What are you accomplishing, Moses? For the sake of inheriting our father[‘s land], we are not considered offspring., for the sake of levirate marriage, we are considered offspring!” With this they silenced Moses. Immediately upon hearing this, “Moses brought their case before the Lord” [Numbers 27:5]. (Yalkut Shimoni, Num. 773)

The wisdom of the daughters of Zelophehad consisted in knowing exactly when to present their argument. Their exegetical ability allowed them to challenge Moses on a legal point at this opportune moment. The silence of Moses indicated that they indeed brought a good question before him, one that only God could answer. In their wisdom they used their exegetical ablity to say that they had no absolute right to their father’s landholding, thus making it clear to all that they were no threat to the established order:

The daughters also knew well how to expound Scripture, for they said, “If our father had a son, we would not have spoken; or even if that son had a daughter, we would not have spoken.” (Baba bathra 119b)

Their righteousness of the five women expressed itself in their willingness to give up their right to marry whomsoever they wished. In Numbers 36 we are told that the family heads of the tribe of Manasseh, their tribe, worried that if the daughters of Zelophehad were to marry outside their tribe, they would thereby pass the land in their possession to other tribes. In order to ensure that their gain would not be at the expense of their tribe, the women agreed to marry only within it, limiting their freedom to choose their marriage partners. The Talmudic text continues:

They were also perfectly righteous, since they married only men who were worthy of them.

Their righteousness is also apparent in the language of their initial demand, which expressed a love of the land of Israel greater than that of the men. Note that the Hebrew root of “Give unto us” and “Let us” is the same [“tena”]:

“Give unto us a possession” (Numbers 27:4). Rabbi Nathan said: Women’s efforts are greater than men’s. The men of Israel [being willing to give up the land] said, “Let us [nittena] head back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4). But Israel’s women insisted, “Give [tena] unto us a possession.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, 773)

These writings of sages teach us that the daughters of Zelophehad were successful not only because of the justice of their cause. Diplomacy, solidarity, exegetical ability, wisdom and righteousness were the traits necessary for them to receive a positive answer to their demands. The answer Moses received from God was, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughter’s is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:7). However, the story of the daughters of Zelophehad raises the question of whether in our own day women fighting for justice and equality still have to use the tactics of the daughters of Zelophehad, or whether the argument that God’s mercy extends over all God’s creatures, an argument that the women dared not bring before the male leaders, is sufficient to ensure that women no longer suffer injustice.

What do you think?


Brenda Bacon is a Senior Lecturer in Jewish Education and Advisor of the MA track in Jewish Education and Curriculum Planning at the Schechter Institute.

Image Credit: The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons