In this week’s text we discover the Zelophedhad sisters who acted to inherit their fathers land and keep their family name alive. Prior to their actions only men could inherit land.
As we near the end of Bamidbar/Numbers, we encounter a parsha that is filled with many subjects which appear to bring resolution to several of the issues facing the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.
- Pinchas is rewarded for his actions of saving the Israelites.
- A final census is taken before entering the Promised Land.
- The Zelophehad sisters are granted inheritance rights over their father’s land.
- God tells Moses that he will not enter the land.
- Joshua is chosen by the Eternal as successor to Moses
- A listing of offerings to be made during the major holidays
For the past few years I have commented on the troubling issues raised in the Pinchas drama. This year, for a different set of issues, I am looking at the affect the Zelophehad sisters have had on our Jewish heritage.
The father of these women died without any male heirs. Without heirs the family name would disappear and their land would revert to the tribe… in this case the tribe of Manasseh. The sisters asked Moses and other leaders of the community for permission to inherit their father’s land and keep the family name alive.
This episode is special for many reasons. First, as you know, it is very rare that women become a major factor in Torah. It is even less frequent to see the women actually named. These women are named twice in this week’s text plus two other times in the Torah. First, early in this parsha during the listing of names in the census…. listed as descendants of Manasseh: “Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons, only daughters. The names of Zelophehad’s daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha, and Tirzah.” (Num. 26:33). Then in Numbers 27:1-11 when they bring their case to “Moses, Eleazar the priests, the chieftains, and the whole assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 27:2) Later in Numbers 36:10-13 the case is revisited to say that the land did not remain in the possession of the women if they married outside of the tribe. The fourth mention is in Joshua 17:3 where the story is repeated to clarify land possessions.
In the census of this parsha which presents key people in each of the tribes only three other women were mentioned…. First, from the tribe of Asher “The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah.” (Num. 26:46) In a footnote in the Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, p. 969, it states that she is also mention in Genesis 46:17 and I Chronicles 7:30. Both just state that she was Asher’s daughter. There is no apparent reason for her inclusion. But, by the fact that she was even mentioned, there was probably a story that history has forgotten.
The two other women mentioned in the census were Moses’ mother and sister. Torah states from the tribe of Levi – the clan of Korahites – “Kohath begot Amram. The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi in Egypt: she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam….” (Num. 26:59)
Maybe of greater importance is the fact that this may be the first recorded instance where the laws of Torah are changed by appeal from the community.
In regards to women’s rights, the fact that the sisters were allowed to speak before a formal court is historic. Usually a husband, father, or other family member represented women.
In regards to inheritance of land by women, modern commentator Jacob Milgromm notes that women could inherit land from their fathers under Sumerian law a thousand years before the Torah. This practice was also common throughout Mesopotania and Egypt well before the exodus of the Israelites. He also states that this was most important in a nomadic society – like the Israelites at this time – because it preserved peaceful relations and strengthened cooperation between all the tribes. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol.3, p. 80)
But if we look at this week’s text and the amendment which appears next week, we have a mixed conclusion…. The land belongs to the women as long as they stay in the tribe. If they marry outside of the tribe, their immediate family loses the land and it reverts back to the tribe.
The daughters still did not have the equal rights of their brothers. It seems that these rulings are more designed to keep the land in the tribal family… not giving women full rights to the land.
Contemporary Torah commentator Pinchas Peli states that the sisters improved the chances of success by going both to Moses and community leaders. They didn’t ask directly for the land; but, asked that their father’s name – his legacy be continued. These tactics were more successful than just a loud vocal protest.
Gunther Plaut comments that Torah presents a number of laws in which men and women are treated equally. Examples include reverence for parents, punishment in cases of incest, and the dietary observances. But the Torah is primarily male oriented. The women are still seen as second-class. Plaut concludes that in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, they “are accorded special treatment – but, only long as they fulfill the primary purpose of preserving the integrity of tribe and land (Num.36:6), reflecting the fact that men always remained members of their tribe, while women might in effect join another tribe.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp 1218-19)
It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800’s that the issue of real equality for women was raised. In 1846 a paper at the Breslau Rabbinical Conference called for equality of women in all religious duties. Both sexes should share equal responsibilities toward raising children and that women are as obligated as men to pursue Jewish education.
Yet it took another hundred years before girls received a bat mitzvah and women took significant roles in temple leadership, or were ordained as rabbis and cantors. Yet even today, there are still many areas that must be addressed ranging from equal recognition under the law to equal wage status. It is hoped that future changes will continue to strengthen and revitalize both our civil and Jewish traditions.
Art work shown above is First Lady Betty Ford’s “Bloomer Flag”” by – Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons