When parents are allocating money and possessions to the next generation, money is easier to split because it comes in divisible units. In contrast, physical property or a family business can be harder to divide. Years ago, when my parents purchased two Persian-style rugs, an unusually large expenditure for them, my mother told me that these would be our irushe (ירושה), using the Yiddish word for inheritance. Since I have two siblings, I asked how we should divide two rugs three ways. My mother’s response: “With scissors.”
We chose a different approach, using a methodology designed by an economist to ensure equity in the distribution of all physical assets.
While the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land, Moses faced the task of figuring out how to allocate land among the Israelite tribes. The text reports that God told Moses to distribute the land by lot, adjusted for clan size. Specifically,
“…the land [should] be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. … The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment shall be made according to the listings of their ancestral tribes.” (Numbers 26:54-57)
The list of names was to be derived from a census of fighting-age males by tribe and sub-tribal clan. Allocating land for the tribe of Manasseh was problematic since “Tzelofhad, son of Hefer, had no sons, only daughters.” The names of the daughters of Tzelofhad – Mahla, No’a, Hogla, Milka and Tirtza — are listed (Numbers 26:33); however, since allocation is made only to males, the sisters would be left destitute.
In Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, the parents faced the similar dilemma of ensuring financial support for their daughters. Mr. Bennet’s estate, including farmland, was entailed to the nearest male relative — no matter how distant. Thus,
“When first Mr. Bennet had married … of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and the younger daughters would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come…. This event had at last been despaired of…” (Austen, Jane; Pride and Prejudice, 1961, p. 258).
Austen solved this problem (spoiler alert!) by marrying two of the daughters off to men wealthy enough to support wives and in-laws.
The five daughters of Tzelofhad chose a different form of activism. As the Torah tells us, they stood together and put their case to Moses: “Our father died in the wilderness … for his own sin he died, and sons he did not have. Why should the name of our father be taken away from the midst of his clan, [just] because he has no son? Give us a holding in the midst of our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27:2-4).
Moses consulted God, who responded: “Rightfully speak the daughters of Tzelofhad! You are to give, yes, give them a hereditary holding in the midst of their father’s brothers; you are to transfer the inheritance of their father to them.” And, more broadly, “Any-man, when he dies and a son he does not have, you are to transfer his inheritance to his daughter” (Numbers 27:7-8).
Entitling first-generation daughters to inherit was undoubtedly a breakthrough for women’s rights. Importantly, the ruling came from God, not Moses, brooking no room for dissent. But make no mistake: this society was clearly patriarchal; a young son took precedence over a daughter, and mothers are never mentioned.
A few chapters later, Numbers 36 reports that God adds a codicil to this ruling restricting daughters’ inheritance if they marry outside the tribe. While this might limit their marriage options, it is consistent with other rules aimed at keeping property within the tribe. Since men, married or not, remained with their tribe, their property stayed as well.
The underlying goal here is economic — to share resources to enable families to support themselves. “Families” would not have been the current nuclear groupings we think of today, but, rather, multi-generational clans. If one clan member inherited ancestral property, then that individual could be held responsible for the support of all clan members. If there was no immediate male heir, permitting a daughter to inherit as long as she stayed within the tribe could enable the clan to continue to be self-supporting.
Ultimately, the Torah, in supporting property rights for daughters without brothers, based on the daughters’ petition, illustrates an economic model for extended family support and demonstrates the potential power of sisterhood. Let’s stand in awe of the five daughters who stood up and stood together to challenge patriarchy and won.