Were the Daughters of Zelophehad the First Feminists?

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1

D'Var Torah By: Shelley Lindauer

Focal Point

  • The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, "Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names. . . ." (Numbers 26:52-53)
  • The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family — son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph — came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, "Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah's faction, which banded together against the Eternal, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!"

Moses brought their case before the Eternal.

And the Eternal One said to Moses, "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." (Numbers 27:1-7)

D'var Torah

The daughters of Zelophehad are brave women: The five sisters, whose names are pointedly listed three times in the Torah, marshal their courage and stand before the leaders to plead a case to inherit their father'slandholding. While it is true that they do not ask that daughters be granted the right to inherit equally with sons, nor do they question the practice of male inheritance, the sisters' actions foretell of a demand for female equality that will come to be articulated many generations later.

The sisters develop a strategic plan: They decide not to act rashly, but choose the most auspicious time to speak, when Moses addresses the laws of levirate marriage. The sisters prepare an appropriate rationale for their request, acting collectively and determinedly to ensure success. They understand that their strength is in their communal effort and so each daughter presents one of five pleas. They also speak tactically, not of their personal entitlements, but of the continuity of their clan and the perpetuity of their father's name.

God sees righteousness in the daughters' request. God records in Torah not only the changes in inheritance laws that the sisters demand, but also the context in which those changes were made: the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, their request to Moses, and their ultimate success. Indeed, we see in this story the groundwork laid for future generations who demand autonomy for women and equality with men. The demands include women's right to speak in public, to own property in their own name, to vote, and to achieve religious parity.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a women's movement took shape, with leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first U.S. birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. The Reform Movement echoed cultural changes by endorsing equality for women, with Abraham Geiger speaking out in 1837: "Let there be from now on no distinction between duties for men and women . . . no assumption of the spiritual inferiority of women . . . no institution of the public service, either in form or content, that shuts the doors of the temple in the face of women" (Abraham Geiger, quoted in Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Time, volume 3 [New York: UAHC Press, 1993], p. 82). Throughout the twentieth century, men and women have continued to fight fo r— and often achieved — educational, professional, and sexual equality. Women in the Western world have redefined the traditional views of their role in a once male-dominated world.

Today, our daughters assume their rightful, though not always equal, place in society. While they are free to choose any profession, including rabbi, they earn seventy-six cents for each dollar a man earns in similarpositions. We take for granted our right to vote, and while women now hold a record number of seats in Congress, equal representation with men in the political arena is still far in the future, if at all. According to the AFL-CIO, four in five mothers of school-age children work for pay" (www.afl-cio.org). At the same time, according to Ohio State University, "women today do two-thirds of the household chores," thus assuming thelion's share of domestic responsibilities (Ohio State University Extension Factsheet, Family and Consumer Sciences, "It's Not My Job! Dividing Household Tasks," Ann L. Fremion). Although women's right to choose has been legally affirmed, the societal cloud under which we make our choices has darkened enormously, and our right to choose is threatened. The number of women victims of sexual predators, both within and outside the home, continues to increase. Are we truly equal in society? As they say, "we've come a long way, baby," but there's still a long way to go. We must find the courage, the tenacity, and the determination of the daughters of Zelophehad. We must emulate their absolute belief in the justness of their request and work to ensure that allwomen will be treated equally, with respect, with dignity, and with legal and cultural protection in our society.

By the Way

  • Rabbi Nathan says: The strength of women is finer than the strength of men. The men said, "Let us head back [nitnah rosh] for Egypt" (Num. 14:4), and the women said, "Give us [t'nah lanu] a holding among our father's kinsmen" (Num. 27:4). (Sifrei, p. 177, cited inBar Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/pinchas/zoh.html)
  • The Sages comment: "The daughters of Zelophehad were clever, knew how to interpret, and were righteous. Clever, in that they spoke at the proper time." (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 119b)

Your Guide

  1. Why did Moses ask God for an answer to the daughters' request for inheritance? Why was he not able to make a decision on his own?
  2. Why are the names of the daughters of Zelophehad mentioned individually?

At the time of this writing in 2005, Shelley Lindauer served as the executive director of Women of Reform Judaism.

Reference Materials

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568