A group of five sisters boldly approached Moses before the entire Jewish nation. These were the daughters of Tzelafchad, the women who were privileged to have a chapter added to the Torah on their behalf: Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. Here is their story.
The Division of the Land
It was the fortieth year since the exodus from Egypt, shortly before the Jewish people were to enter the Promised Land. G‑d had informed Moses that each tribe’s territory would be determined, among other things, by lottery. Each man in the tribe would receive a parcel of land in his tribe’s territory. Upon the man’s death, his sons would inherit his property, thus guaranteeing that each plot would remain in the family to which it was originally assigned.
One man, Tzelafchad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had only daughters. Tzelafchad himself died in the desert (more on that soon), and his daughters were worried that they would not receive a share in the land of Israel. They therefore turned to Moses and requested that they be granted the land that would have gone to their father.
The Torah describes the scene:
They stood before Moses, Elazar the [high] priest, the leaders and the entire congregation, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and said: “Our father died in the desert. He was not among those who banded against G‑d among Korach’s group; rather, he died due to his own sin—and he had no sons.
“Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no sons? Give us a landholding among our father’s brothers!”
Moses brought their case before G‑d. G‑d spoke to Moses as follows: “The daughters of Tzelafchad have spoken correctly. You shall certainly give them a landholding among their father’s brothers, and transfer their father’s inheritance to them.” (Numbers 27:2–7)
In fact, in their merit, the laws of inheritance follow this precedent. From then on, one who died without sons would have his daughters inherit his estate.
His daughters described Tzelafchad as having died “due to his own sin.” The Talmud cites two opinions as to what this sin was, though both agree that it was done with good intentions.
One view is that Tzelafchad was among the ma’apilim, the Jews who attempted to storm the land of Israel. After the sin of the spies, G‑d decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years, until that generation had died out. Seeing the grievous consequences of their mistake, a group of Jews sought to rectify it. Disregarding Moses’ warning that they would not succeed without G‑d’s blessing, they tried to invade Israel via the mountains. They were driven back and slaughtered by the Amalekites and Canaanites, but their intentions were good.
The second opinion is that Tzelafchad was the unnamed man executed for violating Shabbat by gathering wood. Here, too, the Midrash attributes positive intentions to his act.
According to this Midrash, Tzelafchad overheard some Israelites saying that their sentence to wander in the wilderness meant that they were no longer required to observe the commandments. To prove them wrong, he deliberately violated Shabbat, providing an object lesson at the cost of his own life.
On a more literal level of interpretation, Rashi notes that by pointing out that he was not part of Korach’s revolt, Tzelafchad’s daughters wished to stress that their father had sinned alone and not led others astray. Ramban, however, reads their words a little differently: They believed that Moses detested Korach’s sin above all others, and so sought to assure him that their father had not participated.
Whatever Tzelafchad’s sin, it was not severe enough to require that his name be erased from the pages of Jewish history. On the contrary, thanks to his daughters, the name has positive connotations.
Although few details are given about the sisters themselves, a careful reading of the sources provides a portrait of intelligent and pious women.
The sisters’ intelligence is evident from their clear presentation of their case. Indeed, G‑d Himself endorsed their arguments, saying, “The daughters of Tzelafchad have spoken correctly.”
In the various places where the five sisters’ names are listed, they appear in different orders. This is to demonstrate that all five were equal in wisdom and righteousness.
We are also told that although they married late in life, the sisters were all blessed with children.
Most of all, though, Tzelafchad’s daughters represent the Jewish women’s love for the Land of Israel. Our sages note the contrast between the men, who were afraid to enter the land and cried, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt,” and the women, who were eager to possess the land and even demanded a share in it.
The names of two of the sisters, Noa and Tirtzah, have become popular Israeli names.
Some time after the events described above, Tzelafchad’s relatives approached Moses with another concern: Should these women marry into another tribe, their landholdings would end up being transferred into the possession of their sons (who would belong to that tribe), and would be lost to the tribe of Manasseh. Moses relayed G‑d’s response: indeed, Tzelafchad’s daughters should marry only within their own tribe. The five of them duly married their cousins.
For the next fourteen years, any woman who inherited her father’s property could marry only someone from the same tribe. After the land was conquered and divided, however, this law ceased to operate; from then on, an heiress could wed any man she pleased. This was officially declared law on the 15th of Av, and indeed it is one of the reasons why we celebrate on this date.