Numbers 25:10 to 30:1
In Biblical times at the time of a death, all property was inherited by the male heirs. Five women – the daughters of Zelophehad – requested a change so that their father’s property could stay within their family even though there were no sons to inherit it.
In the time of Moses when a man died all his land was inherited by his sons. If there were no sons, the land reverted back to the tribe..
This week, a woman is changing American political history as Hillary Clinton becomes the first women to be nominated to run for the office of president of United States. The focus is on the political power that women have gained over the past hundred years.
Near the end of this week’s parsha five other women change history…. The five daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – are among the few women actually named in Torah. They were the first to successfully petition for a change in Torah law….. “They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the factions, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Eternal, 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 kinsman.’” (Num. 27:2-4)
Moses and this great assembly had no answer, so they went to the Eternal for a solution. The answer… “If a leaving man dies without a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. If he has no brother, you shall as assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, who shall inherit it.” (Num. 27:8-11) Note that the wife is not mentioned …. Because she was considered property of the husband, she did not inherit land However, she was given provisions to sustain herself. Women didn’t own land or conduct business
This is the first time that Torah law was changed by a petition from the public. Women could now inherit a father’s land if there was no son. This seems like a great victory for the women of Israel. But, in next week’s parsha. this decision is amended. “Every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe, in order that every Israelite may keep an ancestral share. Thus no inherit shall pass over from one tribe to another, but the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion.” (Num. 36:8-9) So we learn that the change in inheritance law was not so much for women’s rights; but, a move to keep inherited land in the same family and same tribe.
This episode is still a great advance for women. The fact that the women were allowed to present their request and speak before the leaders of the community is a great advance. In the male-dominated world change did not come easily. According to The Women’s Torah Commentary, (Edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, pp 307-14 – Article written by Rabbi Pamela Wax) throughout history, moves were made to weaken this decision. The Rabbis wrote in the Midrash that if a son dies, his sons or daughters (the deceased grandchildren) would receive the inheritance before any living daughters. (Mishnah Baba Batra 8:2) This was deemed justified on the basis that a son (and therefore his children) were “closer-kin” than a daughter. (Baba Batra IIOb)
However, the daughters were not completely left without resourses. Dowry was generally understood by Jewish law as a substitute for a daughter’s inheritance. Rabbis were concerned that a large dowry could give the total inheritance to a daughter. As a result, they placed monetary limits on dowries. But, fathers who wanted to leave an inheritance to daughters did so through “gifts.” As a result, in some cases, there was nothing left for the sons.
Inheritance through wills was deemed against the laws of inheritance because these documents would go against Torah Law which stated the sons received the inheritance.
Medieval Jewish Law brought a significant change in favor of daughters. Sh’tar batzi zakbar (deed of half the male share) granted a daughter one-half of a son’s portion. This allowed daughters to share in the inheritance. But, it applied only if the daughter was married.
So we see that the victory of the Zelophehad sisters was quickly eroded as inheritance law began to chip away at their share. The last century has seen tremendous gains for women in all areas of law. However, there is still a way to go for equality.