Can executed felons bequeath their assets? Do daughters inherit? What if there are no immediate heirs? We owe the answers to Zelphehad’s daughters

It is popular these days to credit the daughters of Zelaphehad with being proto-feminists who dared to break the glass ceiling of inheritance by demanding their father’s parcel in the Land of Israel, as he had no male heirs.

The sisters Mahlah, Noah, Haglah, Milkah and Tirzah – daughters of a convicted and executed felon –  have certainly earned their spot of immortality in the annals of Jewish legal history.  Yet the ripple effects of their complaint have far broader impact.

For openers, the very fact they presumed that Zelaphehad’s heirs – even had they been male – should be entitled to any share at all is novel.  As an executed felon one could assume that Zelaphehad’s property might have been reclaimed by the state, and even male heirs would receive nothing. Hence the daughters’ query was doubly revolutionary, proving that capital offense does not result in forfeiture of property; that the line of inheritance obtains even for the children of a criminal.

Already implicit from this parsha is the fact that the landed legacy in Eretz Israel belonged to the original Israelites who were liberated from bondage in Egypt, even though none but two (Caleb and Joshua) survived the sojourn in the desert. The actual settlers in The Land were in fact only receiving what had retroactively belonged to their fathers. Indeed the parsha indicates that it was actually the original legacy of the twelve sons of Jacob, transmitted via their sons and ultimately subdivided among their descendants. This explains why the two sons of Judah who died without progeny – Er and Onan – are mentioned  here (26:19) in the census of the Israelite tribes. This indicates that had they, or any of Jacob’s sons, had progeny – yet somehow not experienced the exile in Egypt – they, too, would have been entitled to property in The Land.

Yet, from a pragmatic standpoint, the most critical impact of the Zelaphehad episode is the clear lines of familial inheritance which had not previously existed.

6 And the Lord said to Moses, 7 “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. 8 “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. 11 If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the Lord’s command to Moses.”

 Bamidbar/Numbers 27:1-11

Indeed were it not for the daughters’ plea, we might have no idea who inherits property belonging to a childless man, or how the legacy lines are drawn.

Hence this episode teaches us four things

  1. The land of which the Children of Israel took possession had been in their families since the time of Jacob’s sons and, certainly, belonged to their fathers who perished in the desert;
  2. That convicted and executed felons do not lose their property rights as a result of their transgressions;
  3. That the daughters of son-less fathers inherit their father’s property;
  4. That there is a clear order as to how the property of a childless man is bequeathed, and to whom.

Ultimately we owe a great deal to these girls – proto-feminists or not.