Parshat Pinhas: Zelophehad only had daughters? Don’t be so sure

First a few words about not turning the other cheek

Parshat Pinhas opens with the Almighty’s appreciation of Pinhas who had taken it upon himself to serve as a proxy for G-d’s jealous rage over the spreading popularity of idolatrous Pe’or worship among the Israelites. By murdering Zimri ben Salu and Kozbi bat Zur in flagrante delicto, Pinhas assuages G-d’s anger thereby rescuing the Israelites from annihilation.

Clearly, from a Torah perspective, legitimate jealous anger is a valid emotion as is righteous vindictiveness. Invalidating such emotions and reactions is not very popular in the west as Christianity, despite having enjoyed a 1500 year murder spree of its own, has succeeded in brainwashing society with the concept of ‘turning the other cheek’. Not so our G-d.

It is hardly surprising that those sectors of the Jewish community whose thinking and theology have been shaped and inspired by Christian values are lacking the core zealousness that is necessary for survival and continuity. Indeed, even among Christians, it is precisely those denominations for whom “the meek shall inherit the earth”, and “turn the other cheek” are the summum bonum of their belief system, whose church pews are emptying as rapidly as those of liberal Jewish congregations.

The Census of the Israelites

It is immediately following the debacle of Pe’or (for those who are uninformed, Pe’or worship involved defecating in front of a sculpture of the god Pe’or and then wiping oneself by rubbing their backsides on Pe’or’s nose) – an indication of the abject spiritual state of the Israelites – that G-d commands Moses to undertake a census of the Israelite people.

A census has a purpose. The core objective is to have a count of those members of a society that matter. It is interesting that that United States is currently embroiled in a political war over whether US citizenship should be included in the forthcoming census questionnaire. That this is even a question is fundamentally absurd. For what other than citizenship could possibly be the lowest common denominator for membership in a given society?

For the Torah, the purpose of the Israelite census is made manifest: to determine who may receive property in the land of Israel

שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה לבית אבתם כל יצא צבא בישראל

Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from 20 years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all that go forth in the army of Israel  — Bamidbar (Numbers) 26:2

Notice that the word כל/all appears twice; that the Torah defines the entirety of the Jewish People as being exclusively comprised of those males over the age of 20 who serve in the military.

We are then told:

לאלה תחלק הארץ במספר שמות

‘Unto these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to
the number of names. — Bamidbar (Numbers) 26:52

Having listed the names of the eligible Israelite families and defined the criteria of who is counted among “all the congregation” we are now told that it is “unto these” that the land shall be divided “for an inheritance”. In other words, not only is the land to be parceled out exclusively to those who fulfill the criteria, i.e. being over 20 and having served in the army, but that such ‘inheritance’ is, for all time, predicated on the same criteria.

By contrast, Levite sons are separately counted from infancy as they receive no inherited land and therefore are not required to serve in the military. The Torah is very clear. The Levite gets no land because he is not counted among the Israelites, i.e. he does not serve in the military. Israelites get land, but only only if they serve.

ויהיו פקדיהם שלשה ועשרים אלף כל זכר מבן חדש ומעלה
כי לא התפקדו בתוך בני ישראך כילא נתן להם נחלה בתוך ישראל

And they (the Levites) that were counted were twenty-three thousand, every male from a month old and upward; because they were not numbered among the children of Israel, because there was no inheritance given them among the children of Israel

Bamidbar (Numbers) 26:62

It is absolutely clear from this that male offspring do not automatically inherit their father’s allocated property unless they are over age 20 and have served the military.

The missing sons of Zelophehad?

At this point the Torah segues to the ruling regarding the daughters of Zelophehad who argue that they should not be disenfranchised simply because their father had no sons (i.e. that he had no sons that were eligible for inheritance.) For surely if Zelophehad had a son who, for example, had chosen to sit in a kolel rather than serve in the army, that son would, for all intents and purposes, not exist among those counted among כל עדת בני ישראל according to the criteria spelled out in verse 26:2.

Indeed there is but one way to understand the following:

איש כי ימות ובן אין לו והעברתם את נחלתו לבתו

If a man (איש) dies, and has no son, then his inheritance should pass on to his daughter.

— Bamidbar (Numbers) 27:8

The Torah uses the word איש to describe only those males who are 20 or older and have served in the army. We see this clearly by contrasting the census of the half shekel in Parshat Ki Tisa (Shemot/Exodus 30:11-15) with the census described here and in the opening chapter of Bamidbar. Back in the case of the mahatzit ha-shekel (the mandatory half shekel census fee) every male over age 20 was required to make the half shekel contribution, including those who chose to shirk military service by, for example, learning in a kolel. Hence the term איש is not used in the Ki Tisa count. Because a male who has not served is not considered an איש, he is not a man in the full sense according to the Torah.

Hence we see that Zelophad may indeed have had a son or sons, but they would not have been eligible to receive the inheritance of land as they were excluded from כל עדת בני ישראל if, for example they had opted to sit in a yeshiva rather than protect their People. Of course it is possible, if not probable, that Zelophehad had no sons. But clearly the Torah is teaching us that in order for a son to inherit patrimonial land he must first be an איש i.e. at least 20 years of age and having served in the army. No exceptions.

As for Pinhas, it is entirely possible that had there indeed been shirkers who chose to study Talmud instead of serving in the army as G-d had commanded, he might have speared them in his zealotry as well. For even Talmud can become idol-worship if it is an ends in itself and turns one away fro fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to work six days a week and to serve in the military.

Tragically, we live in a time when tens of thousands of able-bodied young men prefer Talmudolatry to leading productive and protective lives. And by our allowing this disgrace to go on, and to be complicit in it by funding such an aberration, we all fly in the face of Torah’s teachings and have a great deal to answer for.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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