Few women are mentioned by name in the Torah, and those who are, are generally major players (i.e. Sarah, Rachel, Miriam). Yet twice in the Torah, Mach’lah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah–the five daughters of Zelophchad–are listed. In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, in Numbers 27, they approach Moses and ask to inherit their father’s property in the Promised Land, since he had died without sons. Because of their request, the law was established that “If a man dies with no sons, then his inheritance goes to his daughter(s)” (Numbers 27:8)

As the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, the heads of the tribe of Menashe (Zelophchad’s tribe) approached Moses with a concern about Zelophchad’s daughters: “If they marry sons of the other tribes…their inheritance will be taken away from the inheritance of our father’s tribe (Menashe), and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong [since the children will be reckoned as part of their father’s tribe] (Number 36:3).” To ensure that this would not be the case, Moses ruled that Zelophchad’s daughters could marry whomever they wished, but only from the tribe of their father (Menashe), so that the land would not be lost to the tribe.

Nothing more about these remarkable women is mentioned in the Torah, but the sages of the Talmud relate:

[They] were wise women, they were interpreters of scripture, they were virtuous. They [must] have been wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment…They [must] have been interpreters of scripture, for they said: “If he had a son we would not have spoken” (Numbers 27:8)… [The explanation is that they said]: “Even if a son [of his] had a daughter, we would not have spoken.” They were virtuous, since they married only such men worthy of them (Baba Batra 119b).

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