“The Daughters of Zelophehad: Legitimate Feminist Claims”
(Revised and updated from Pinchas 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn of the precedent-shattering request of the daughters of Zelophehad.

The Torah, in Numbers 27, records that the five daughters of Zelophehad presented their request before Moses, Elazar the Priest, the Princes of the Israelite tribes, and the entire congregation of Israel at the door of the Tabernacle. The women claimed that their father had died in the wilderness and had left no sons. They said to the distinguished leaders, Numbers 27:4, תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ , “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Since prior to the women’s request, only sons had inherited their father’s possessions, Moses was confounded. The Torah relates that Moses did not know the immediate answer, and brought the question before G-d. G-d told Moses (Numbers 27:7), that the claim of the daughters of Zelophehad was justified, and instructed Moses to arrange for the transfer of their father’s inheritance to them.

As further clarification for the future, G-d states that if a man dies and leaves no sons, his property shall first transfer to his daughters, and only if there are no male or female heirs, should the property be transferred to other close relatives.

This scriptural portion is indeed remarkable. After all, why didn’t the Torah simply include this law as part of the regular legal portions of the Torah? Why was it necessary to record that the daughters approached Moses, and that Moses was incapable of responding? Furthermore, why was it necessary for Moses to receive the answer directly from G-d?

We live in an age where many legitimate disenfranchised individuals, communities and countries make claims about historic injustices. They demand that the discriminatory practices cease and, at times, demand compensation for the previous injustices. Lately, the practice of discriminatory claims has become so widespread, and, in certain instances, has gotten so out of hand, that it’s been quipped, only half in jest, that soon left-handed people will start class-action suits against public accommodations that have staircase handrails only on the right side.

Distinguishing between a legitimate claim and a non-legitimate claim has become increasingly difficult. And, with the factor of “political correctness” often added to the mix, woe unto the person who does not show proper respect to those claims–legitimate or otherwise!

It is fascinating that the Torah has included the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad as a featured parasha, rather than learn it from textual exegesis, as are many other important laws. It underscores that Judaism is extremely sensitive to women’s needs and eager to establish fair and equitable parameters for them. But, it’s not so surprising, after all, since, already in Genesis (2:27), the Torah declared that both husband and wife should become one flesh, and just as one would not hurt or mistreat oneself, so one must not hurt or mistreat one’s spouse.

It is the Torah that was the first universal document to declare that a man must provide for, and adequately support, his wife. The verse in Exodus 21:10 declares, שְׁאֵרָהּ כְּסוּתָהּ וְעֹנָתָהּ, לֹא יִגְרָע , husbands must provide their wives with food, clothing and sexual pleasure.

Furthermore, the entire narrative of the book of Exodus indicates that were it not for the women, the Jewish people would never have been redeemed from Egypt. Not only are the women the heroes, in each case, the Torah cites the errant behavior of the men, and the faithful behavior of the women. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 24:1, is also the first document in human history to provide the right for divorce for those in unsuccessful marriages. Similarly, the Torah, Deuteronomy 21:16, insists that if a man has multiple wives, he may not favor one woman’s children over the other’s. In fact, the Torah clearly discourages multiple wives. Not coincidentally, each case of polygamy cited in the Bible is unsuccessful, riddled with pain and unhappiness. The Bible, in Samuel I 1:6, calls the second wife a צָרָה“tzara,” literally a “pain” to the first wife–which is the origin of the venerable Yiddish word צָרוֹת“tsuris,” travail!

The Talmud, Sanhedrin 76b, declares boldly that a man must love his wife as much as himself, and honor her, more than himself. It is indeed fascinating to note that the male-dominated rabbinic hierarchy has worked assiduously over the millennia to expand the rights and privileges of women, particularly remarkable since this was done at the time when other civilizations had severely limited the rights of women. It was not so long ago that women in some countries of the Orient were expected to jump into the grave and be buried alive after their husbands died. Jewish tradition, Talmud, Arkhin 19a, teaches that in contrast to older men, who are regarded as a burden, older women in the house are considered a treasure and a blessing.

Now, back to the earlier question. Why indeed was the law of inheritance of daughters not included in the general legal portions of the Bible? Why was it necessary to ask G-d Himself to render a decision? Rashi (Deuteronomy 27:5) cites the statement in Talmud Sanhedrin 8a, that the righteous daughters of Zelophehad merited to have this law promulgated in their name. It may also be that this law receives special attention because Halakha, Jewish law, is an ever-evolving legal system. Clearly, the social status and positions of both men and women change as society evolves. Could it be that the Al-mighty was signaling that as the role of women changes in society, the role of women needs to be reevaluated in the religious society? But, of course, there is a caveat–if the laws and practices of the secular society controvert any of the values and laws of the Torah, they must not be followed. To the contrary, they must be rejected. However, when the laws and customs of society do not clash with Jewish law then, by all means, Jews must assume a leading role in the efforts to expand women’s rights and privileges.

It is certainly fair to say in retrospect, that women, for the most part, truly want to advance the stations of women, and resent being disenfranchised from rights and privileges that should legitimately be theirs. Women are entitled to have the opportunity to properly nurture their children, to be granted maternity leave, and paternity leave for fathers, and, of course, women are entitled to equal education, and equal opportunities in the job market.

The ancient laws that we learn from the episode of the daughters of Zelophehad, were, in their time, a revolutionary breakthrough in society and family. They are included in the Torah narrative to help us understand the nature of Torah and the nature of the Torah’s perspective on women. The fact that Moses had to seek G-d’s opinion, clearly indicates that the Al-mighty Himself is concerned for women. More than anything, the Al-mighty wants for all His children to constantly explore His Torah, to find new insights, to discover new interpretations, and for Jewish life to expand and evolve.

It is G-d’s fervent wish that this continuing search, will enable all of G-d’s creations to develop in a healthful and constructive manner, for the betterment of all of humanity.

May you be blessed.