Attractive Spinsters

“They laughed at them,” Shmida said to the little girl. “They often laughed at them,” Shmida repeated as he leaned back on his low stool. The little girl looked up at Shmida with adoring eyes. Shmida’s face and arms were wrinkled like a prune left in the sun. His robe was freshly ripped over his heart. He smiled widely, revealing one remaining tooth protruding from his lower gums.

“People always laughed at Tirzah and her sisters. But it was a mean laugh. They ridiculed them. They teased them. They wanted the girls to hear laughter and feel pain.”

“But why?” the little girl asked. She was seven years old, had dark long braided hair and freckles that spread from her face down her arms. She sat cross-legged on the wooden porch floor, looking at Shmida. He was looking at the wide expanse of land from the porch of his large stone house. A fresh grave lay under an oak tree. “Why were they so mean?”

“Tirzah and her sisters were unusual. Their father was killed for a well-publicized sin he committed in the desert. Zlafchad publicly violated the Sabbath. Moses, our teacher, had him stoned to death in front of all of Israel. It was something the tribes would not let the girls forget. No one would marry them. They got older and grayer and walked around the camp as a pack of five tall middle-aged spinsters.”

“How did you marry her then?”

“Even though they were older, all the sisters were beautiful, especially Tirzah. She was the youngest of them. She was forty one. Towards the end of our stay in the desert, on the plains of Moab, Moses spoke about dividing the land and who would inherit. Tirzah and her sisters approached the leaders of our tribe, the leaders of Menashe and requested the inheritance of Zlafchad.

I remember the meeting vividly, for I also sat on that council. Our council leader Yochanan yelled at them for daring to bother the council with such a frivolous request.

‘Who ever heard of a woman inheriting?’ He had screamed, his face reddening behind his short white beard. ‘In what world does a woman have property rights?’ Then Yochanan laughed. A deep long insensitive laugh. Other council members joined in the laughter. ‘Foolish girls, the inheritance of Zlafchad shall go to his brothers and their descendants. Do not bother us anymore with this issue.’

‘How convenient, Uncle’ Mahlah the oldest said. ‘That you should directly benefit from your own ruling. We shall seek redress elsewhere.’

‘How dare you?’ Yochanan pounded on the table in front of him. ‘How dare you imply a miscarriage of justice? Our ways are clear. It is you, you daughters of a notorious sinner that are mistaken. Gravely mistaken. I forbid you to take this matter further. If you continue to spout such venom, it is the court, this holy court that will punish your wrongdoing and your libel.’

The five girls looked to the ground, redness creeping up their necks to fill their face. They shuffled away from the council without a further word. I looked at the face of the oldest, of Mahlah. I glanced at her eyes expecting sadness or frustration. I was surprised to see determination. All five of the girls walked away with a quiet determination on their faces. Yochanan did not notice.”

“But Shmida, you didn’t explain how you married her.”

“That’s when Tirzah first caught my eye. The next day was when I decided to marry her.”

“So what happened?” the little girl jumped up still cross-legged on the porch. “Tell me what happened already.”

“The next day was a day of the full council of sages, led by Moses himself, in front of the Tabernacle courtyard. Seventy sages sat in a semicircle on either side of Moses and his nephew Elazar, the new High Priest. Dozens of people lined up to have their cases heard. Hundreds stood around to hear the deliberations. I was amongst them, standing next to Yochanan.

‘What is the next case?’ Moses asked Elazar sitting to his right.

‘Elsa, the divorcee of Lemak from Dan claims that she should be entitled to an inheritance from her father,’ Elazar answered.

A heavy woman in her fifties approached Moses slowly.

‘Greetings, Elsa,’ Moses said, and then turned towards the sages.

‘Though the case is straightforward it is still a fresh law. Would one of our esteemed colleagues do us the favor of explaining the relevant laws?’

An elderly sage from the tribe of Gad stood up and explained the law to the assembly. Other sages asked questions and debated points of law. The verdict was finally given. Elsa would not inherit any land in Canaan, though her brothers were commanded to support her from their father’s estate.

Then I saw five tall regal-looking women slowly jostle through the crowd around the Tabernacle.

‘I told them not to bother Moses,’ Yochanan pointed at the sisters approaching the courtyard.

‘It seems you were not convincing,’ I said.

‘Those girls of Zlafchad will just cause trouble,’ Yochanan said.

‘They have a right to bring forward their complaint,’ I responded.

‘They brought it to me already and I ruled against them. That should have been the end of it.’

‘You are not exactly unbiased in this matter, Yochanan. I think perhaps you should have let someone else rule on the inheritance question.’

‘There is no question. Since when does a woman inherit? I have never heard of such a thing?’

‘I give them credit for trying.’

‘Those spinsters have too much time on their hands. They need husbands to keep them out of trouble. No father and no husband is a poor combination. I need to stop them.’

Yochanan got closer to the assembled sages and spoke to a few at the edge of the semicircle.

‘Do women now come and blatantly dictate the agenda of the court?’

‘What do you mean, Yochanan?’ one of the sages asked.

‘Look at the gaggle of women approaching. I heard their case and it was nonsense. Their coming to the high court is disrespectful to our system of justice. It is disrespectful to you.’ Yochanan pointed at the sage.

‘Who are they? What do they want?’ the sage asked. A crowd formed around Yochanan to hear the discussion. Yochanan hid a smile.

‘They are the daughters of Zlafchad. Remember him? They want to inherit land in Canaan from their dead father. He had no sons and they argue that girls should receive land. Who ever heard such drivel?’

The five sisters stood in front of the semicircle of sages. Murmuring from the crowd grew louder upon the realization of the five women standing in front of the court.

Moses addressed them directly. With a kind but strong voice, he called their names:

‘Mahlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, Tirzah. How can this assembly serve you?’

Mahlah approached Moses and pleaded:

‘Our father died in the wilderness. He did not rebel against God with Korach’s group. He died for his own sin, but he had no sons.’

Moses listened impassively. Mahlah and her sisters came closer to Moses. Mahlah got on her knees.

‘Why should the name of our father disappear from among his family? Because he had no son? Give us, his daughters, an inheritance among the brethren of our father.’

‘The insolence,’ Yochanan called out from the far side of the sages. Murmurs and arguing erupted around and amongst the sages. ‘Women landowners?’ someone called out. The murmuring got louder. Tirzah and her sisters shifted restlessly in front of the sages.

‘Silence,’ Moses bellowed. The assembly quieted down.

Moses stared into the eyes of each of the sisters. They held hands awaiting his verdict.

‘The case of the women has merit,’ Moses announced. ‘I shall confer with God.’

Moses closed his eyes and tilted his head heavenward. He spread out his arms. The usual glow that surrounded Moses intensified. His eyes tightened in concentration. The sisters held their breath.

Moses smiled and opened his eyes. He quoted God as saying that the daughters of Zlafchad are correct. The girls shivered at the words God, Zlafchad and correct and smiled. He said they shall inherit their father’s portion.

Moses explained in more detail the laws of inheritance. Sons inherit the father, but if there is no son, the land goes to his daughters. If there are no children, it goes to the brothers of the deceased.

The five sisters bowed towards Moses and left the assembly. The crowd parted to let the sisters through. I approached Tirzah.

‘Has Yochanan’s lackey come to spoil our victory?’ she demanded as she saw me.

‘I am the lackey of no man, cousin Tirzah. I wish to congratulate you on your hard fought battle and on your success,’ I said.

‘Mahlah did most of the work,’ Tirzah said.

‘It is you that I find interesting Tirzah. It took great bravery for all of you to stand there together against the jeers of the assembly and in front of the gaze of Moses.’

‘Flattery is not something that I am accustomed to. Are you saying this because I have come into an inheritance?’

‘Tirzah, I have admired you for a full day before I discovered you will have a wealthy inheritance in Canaan. You are courageous and dignified and I would have you as a wife. Will you marry me?’

‘That is very forward of you, cousin Shmida. I prefer to let my older sisters marry first. Are you willing to wait?’

‘You have waited so long to marry, you wish to delay further?’

‘I wish to give my older sisters the honor of marrying in order. I shall wait.’

‘For a woman such as you, I will wait as long as you will have me. But now that your family has recovered from shame and you are all inheritors, I don’t expect we will have to wait long.’

And we didn’t.  . . . That was fifty years ago.”

“But why don’t girls inherit with boys?” the little girl asked.

“Girls are supported by the estate, but are not given land if there are male inheritors.”

“That seems unfair.”

“I don’t understand all the reasons myself, but I think God wanted to keep the land within the tribe. There was an added condition given to the daughters of Zlafchad. They could only marry within the tribe of Menashe.”

“Is that why grandma married you?”

“It didn’t hurt that we were from the same tribe, but I think she also liked me.”

“Grandpa,” the little girl grinned. “You think she liked you? That’s all you can say after fifty years?”

“I guess there was a certain attraction between us.”

“She loved you.”

“I know.” Fresh tears fell down Shmida’s wrinkled face. “I miss her. Terribly.”

“Me too.” And the little girl hugged her grandfather.


* * * * * *


Secondary Sources:


The name Shmida comes from Numbers 26 where he is listed as a relative of Zlafchad.

The gatherer of sticks on the Sabbath (who was sentenced to stoning) was Zlafchad. Tractate Shabbat 96b.

Zlafchad’s daughters were clever, interpreters of the law and righteous. They were clever, for they spoke at an opportune moment…. They were righteous, for they married only those who were worthy of them. Even the youngest of them was at least forty years old when she married, and because they were righteous, a miracle was made for them as for Yocheved and they bore children. Tractate Bava Batra 119b.


Biblical Sources:


Numbers Chapter 27

1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. 2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying: 3 ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. 4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ 5 And Moses brought their cause before the Lord.

6 And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: 7 ‘The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. 8 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. 9 And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren. 10 And if he have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his father’s brethren. 11 And if his father have no brethren, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his kinsman that is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it. And it shall be unto the children of Israel a statute of judgment, as the Lord commanded Moses.’

Numbers Chapter 36


1 And the heads of the fathers’ houses of the family of the children of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the children of Israel; 2 and they said: ‘The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the children of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother unto his daughters. 3 And if they be married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the children of Israel, then will their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of our fathers, and will be added to the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong; so will it be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. 4 And when the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then will their inheritance be added unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong; so will their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.’ 5 And Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying: ‘The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaketh right. 6 This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: Let them be married to whom they think best; only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married. 7 So shall no inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe; for the children of Israel shall cleave every one to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. 8 And every daughter, that possesseth an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall be wife unto one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the children of Israel may possess every man the inheritance of his fathers. 9 So shall no inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe; for the tribes of the children of Israel shall cleave each one to its own inheritance.’ 10 Even as the Lord commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad. 11 For Mahlah, Tirzah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married unto their father’s brothers’ sons. 12 They were married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.