When a woman’s word and property were not her own

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Rabbi Deborah Reichmann | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 – 36:13.


Whenever women get to be center stage in the Torah it’s worth taking a close look. In this week’s parshah, we get two such opportunities. The double parshah Matot-Masei concludes the book of Numbers and finds the Israelites camped on the banks of the river Jordan after 40 years of preparation, ready to enter Canaan and claim their land. They are apportioning property, recording their travels and establishing rules for sanctuary cities. The Torah also shares information on what constitutes a binding vow, and returns to the issue of the daughters of Zelophehad dealt with last week.

The parshah starts with a reiteration of the seriousness of a person’s vow. Let me amend that: the seriousness of a man’s vow. In one sentence, Chapter 30 verse 3, the Torah makes clear that a man is liable for his words. The next 13 verses of the chapter deal with a woman’s supposed liability for her words. Supposed because, in a nutshell, if her father or husband objects to the oath she made, it is annulled. Just like that.

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OK, not just like that. There is a built-in statute of limitations in the rules. A man (father or husband) must annul the vow upon hearing of it, and if he offers no objection, she is bound by her oath. Now, take note, the time limit is not on the vow itself, but on the learning of it. He must object immediately in order to revoke it. Even if she has followed her oath up until that time, her devotion is deemed inconsequential.

We could look at these passages and emphasize that a woman has some agency over herself, since she can be held liable for her promises. But, upon closer examination, it is clear that her agency is diminished to the point of irrelevance, since the oaths under discussion are not promises between humans, but between a human and God. If a promise to God, a promise of significant import and value, can be revoked by someone other than she who made it, what value can her promises have in other contexts?


In case we missed the point of a woman’s subservience to her father and/or husband, it is hammered home in the follow-up to the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. In parshat Pinchas (Numbers 27 1-11), we learned of the orphaned daughters of Zelophehad who successfully petitioned Moses to be able to inherit their father’s land. Moses stated that the law of inheritance goes first to a son and if he is unavailable, to a daughter. If the story ended here, it would be a great boon to women’s empowerment. The ability to own property and all the rights derived therefrom is fundamental to an individual’s independence.

But, the story doesn’t end there. As Moses is apportioning the land of Israel the men of the tribe of Menasseh (Zelophehad’s tribe) ask Moses to modify his decree to the sisters. As soon as a woman marries her possessions become her husband’s, so the tribe feared a loss of land if the women married outside the tribe. The biblical solution? “Every daughter among the Israelite tribes who inherits a share must marry someone from a clan of her father’s tribe.” In effect, the woman’s ownership of the property is a farce — she is merely holding it temporarily for the tribe.

A woman’s word and a woman’s property are not her own, according to the Torah. This is hardly surprising, and thousands of years of societal evolution have improved her rights to some extent. In 1970 Irina Dunn wrote, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” We might be getting to that point of women’s empowerment now (not there yet), but this parshah makes clear that in biblical times a fish needed a bicycle.

Rabbi Deborah Reichmann is rabbi of Interfaith Family Project of Greater Washington.

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