Lessons from the Story of Zelophehad’s Daughters

Biblical law legislates that a man’s property is to be inherited by his sons. Daughters would be provided for by their brothers until marriage, and by  their husbands afterwards. However, what of families having only daughters? How would they be supported until they married, and what would be the fate of their fathers’ land? This is the question that the daughters of Zelophehad presented to Moses in the portion of Pinchas which resulted in some legislative innovations (Num. 27:11). When describing their father, the young women stated (Numbers 27:3):

אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-יְהוָה, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח:  כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ.

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 Korach, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons.

In fact, what sin was the cause of his death? Rashi tells us that he had gathered wood on the Sabbath, thus transgressing the prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath. Now why were the daughters of Zelophehad  so eager to stress the fact that their father had died for transgressing the Sabbath? Is that any less heinous than being a member of Korach’s cabal? As an answer to this question, Tosafot in Baba Bathra (119b) quotes a Midrash which says that Zelophehad’s intentions were quite good. He had noticed that after the prohibition to  enter  the land of Israel was decreed against the  older generation as a result of  the spying incident, many became quite lax in their observance of the commandments, perhaps because they felt that the laws were designed mainly as a guide to life in Israel (Rashi, Deuteronomy 11:18), or simply in despair. Zelophehad purposely transgressed one of the commandments in anticipation of receiving a punishment in order to show the Jews that they were still obligated to fulfill any law that was relevant to their situation.

Three lessons may be learned from the Midrashic interpretation of Zelophehad’s sin. First, with respect to the Children of Israel: Never give up, no matter how hopeless  the situation seems. Second, with respect to Zelophehad: the ends do not justify the means. He was punished for a deliberate transgression, in spite of his good intentions. Finally, with respect to ourselves, who read the Biblical account: Always give the benefit of the doubt.  In the end, Zelophehad may have been a lot more respectable  than we had assumed.

The daughters of Zelophehad request an inheritance even though heirs were heretofore required to be male , and Moses poses their question to the Lord.  Rashi (27:5) implies that God had not transmitted to Moses the proper answer to their request. Rabbi Abraham of Sochatshov has a different take on this. He tells the story of a European Jewish community in which a controversy had raged for  a number of months, with certain members of the community pitted against the rabbi. Soon after  peace was achieved, the rabbi dealt with a personal squabble. After the first session with the rabbi, one of the litigants whispered to the rabbi that he had taken his  side  in the communal altercation. The rabbi thanked him for imparting that information, and proceeded to immediately disqualify himself from adjudicating the quarrel. Similarly here, as soon as the daughters stressed that their father had not rebelled against Moses, Moses realized that he was experiencing a form of bribery, and passed the case on to the Almighty Himself. The moral principle illustrated by this interpretation is: Impartiality in Judgment, leading to true equality before the law.

The Talmud (Baba Bathra 119b) presents the argument offered by the daughters of Zelophehad. They asked Moses, how do you relate to us daughters?  Are we considered legitimate progeny? If so, then give us our  deserved portion of the land. If, on the other hand, we are not valid offspring,  then our mother is in effect childless, and is subject to  leviratic marriage. But permitting leviratic marriage where it is not obligatory is a cardinal prohibition. Moses was both stumped, and duly impressed by their cleverness, and so he referred the question to the Lord, who of course answered in the affirmative, thus teaching us one more moral principle: Do not discriminate because of race or sex.

In summary, the Midrash has stimulated us to formulate the following moral precepts:

  1. Midrashic explanation of the sin of Zelophehad: In contrast to the behavior of those among the Children of Israel who had been banned from entering the holy land: Do not despair no matter how bleak the future seems. In contrast to Zelophehad’s behavior, realize that:  The ends do not justify the means. In contrast to how contemporary observers usually relate to his sin: Always give the benefit of the doubt (especially when dealing with transgressions between man and God).
  2. Moses’s disqualification of himself from judgment: Impartiality in judgment. Aversion to Bribery.
  3. God’s positive response to the plea of the daughters: Do not discriminate on the basis of race or sex.

The point of this essay is to  show how quaint Biblical stories, as well as the vast Rabbinic literature which has evolved throughout the years, remain as relevant to our lives as ever, and can hopefully provide guidance to both our major and quotidian dilemmas.

About the Author
Abba Engelberg served as professor at Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) for 40 years, where he founded and headed the women’s division. He is presently the dean of the International Program at JCT. He was a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force where he achieved the rank of colonel. He is the father of four sons and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has authored books and articles in the areas of science and religion. Abba Engelberg graduated from Telshe Yeshiva (valedictorian) and Yeshiva University (cum laude), where he received rabbinical ordination. He holds a Ph.D. from NYU in operations research.
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