The case of the daughters of Zelophehad

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By Saul Golubcow

Special to WJW


This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The case of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11) is remarkable not only in the attention it brings to the inheritance rights of Israelite women but also in its very inclusion amid foundational directives introduced in the parshah to sustain a moral, religious and civil society, which the Israelites were on the verge of losing.

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The Israelites had just succumbed to the debauched practices of the Midianites, engaged in civil war highlighted by the zealotry of Pinchas’ execution of an Israelite “prince” and his Midianite consort, suffered plague losses of 24,000 and still needed to prepare for war with Midian.

In response, Parshat Pinchas lays out what is needed to stanch the ethical and physical losses and build toward a secure and righteous national identity. Immediately, the Israelites must have precise knowledge of how many could fight Midian. Hence, Moses and Eleazar, the high priest, institute a census, which tallies 601,730 men of fighting age. Adding in Levites, priests, women, children and elderly men, we find a nation of around 2 million people requiring stable leadership, religious inspiration and just laws.


Because Moses will die before crossing the Jordan, the issue of succession must also be resolved so, as Moses states, “God’s congregation not be as sheep which have no shepherd.” God informs Moses that Joshua will succeed him, and Joshua is placed before leadership and the whole congregation to announce the decision.

As demonstrated earlier, a people lacking spiritual substance is bereft of direction regardless of numbers and military prowess. Therefore, the parshah details the sacrificial offerings (later prayers) for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the three festivals and Rosh Chodesh. These offerings express a separation from the mundane, bring community together and express spiritual faith and trust.

All of this places in relief the modest, stage-like entrance and succinct judicial discourse of the five daughters of Zelophehad before Israel’s highest ranking officials and the whole congregation.

Foreshadowed earlier in the census-taking, these women are mentioned as belonging to the tribe of Manasseh and daughters of a man who had no sons. They are women of little yichus compared to the few other named women. Serah, the daughter of Asher, was a grand dame, the only woman specifically mentioned in Genesis as having gone down into Egypt. Yocheved and Miriam are of the elite Levites, Moses’ and Aaron’s mother and sister.

In an act that resonates with the earlier Torah injunction for a judge not to favor the rich or poor, these non-descript women, before an august court of males, argue that gender also should not inhibit rendering justice. Why, they demand, should they not inherit both the material possessions and the family name because their father “had no son.”

Without hesitation, Moses grants a writ of certiorari and takes the daughters’ appeal to God, the Supreme Court. “The daughters of Zelophehad plead correctly,” rules God, and orders their father’s inheritance to pass to them. But more, the ruling becomes settled law for all similar cases, “a statute of judgment” in Israel’s legal canon that we endlessly continue to refine in the spirit of early justice exemplified by the case of the daughters of Zelophehad.

For discussion: The courage of everyday people such as the daughters of Zelophehad put in motion the wheels of justice to rectify an apparent legal wrong. Has someone in our recent times served a similar purpose?

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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