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A Daughter of Tzelafchad Speaks

A Daughter of Tzelafchad Speaks

The First Feminist Movement


There is a growing number of Torah-observant women struggling to reconcile two aspirations which are not easily joined. One is the longing for marriage and children, the other a passion for study and more active participation in communal life. There are few role models, and for many the impulse itself raises questions. Is it a holy urge, or one prompted by secular values not supported by spiritual truths?

The question is real for any woman who seeks to live by the Torah. One way to resolve the problem is to identify a scriptural passage that articulates the archetype of this dilemma, and examine its teachings for relevant advice. I suggest that the Torah’s account (Numbers 27) of how the daughters of “Mankind favors men over women. But G‑d is not like that . . .” Zelophehad presented their case to Moses to receive their father’s share in the Promised Land as inheritance, serves as an excellent role model for Jewish women today contesting the status quo.

A petition was presented by the daughters of Zelophehad . . . And they stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the princes and the entire community at the door of the Tent of Meeting, with the following petition:

“Our father died in the desert . . . without leaving any sons. Why should our father’s name be disadvantaged in his family merely because he had no son? Give to us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before G‑d.

G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father’s brothers. Let their father’s hereditary property thus pass over to them.

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If a man dies and has no sons, his hereditary property shall pass over to his daughter . . .” (Numbers 27:1–9; trans. Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah).

There are many teachings in this passage, relevant both to women seeking halachic (Torah legal) support for change and to the rabbis who are ruling on their questions. It suggests an approach that, if conscientiously adopted by both parties, will keep peace below and draw grace from Above. This article explores both perspectives.

Guidelines for Petitioners

When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “G‑d’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. G‑d is not like that. His compassion extends to men and women alike . . .” (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27; Sifri, Numbers 27:1)

They identified the underlying spiritual principle being violated. Deep inside, something did not feel right, and they named it. Because they were focused on truth and the higher good, they had the strength to persist through inner and outer resistance.

The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, for they presented their petition at the right time. (Talmud, Bava Batra 119b; Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 21:11)

They did not raise theoretical issues. Rather, they waited until the moment of practical decision and spoke their piece. We learn from them that there are two criteria of truth. Its content must be accurate, and it must be spoken at the right time. When both conditions are met, the heavens and the earth will open to receive it.

The daughters of Zelophehad understood that timing is deeply intuitive. From their example we derive an essential principle of social action: one must wait for the right moment to correct an injustice.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. The “offending principle” may dissipate on its own.
  2. The individual who felt oppressed by the offending concept might find, as her life unfolds, that the issue becomes irrelevant.
  3. Change might occur naturally at the moment of contact.

The daughters of Zelophehad were learned women. They presented their petition in a logical and halachically sophisticated manner. (Talmud and Midrash, ibid.)

After identifying the larger spiritual frame, they supported their petition with halachic principles and precedents. They built an argument that was true to the letter and spirit of authentic discourse.

Its content must be accurate, and it must be spoken at the right time

Their petition followed a razor-sharp line of reasoning that incorporated all the relevant laws and principles, and even formulated the proper decision. This is why Scripture says, “And Moses brought their judgment before G‑d”—their judgment, not their question, for their petition included the legal argument and its ruling. (Anaf Yosef commentary on Ein Yaakov, Bava Batra 119b)

And finally,

They trusted [the Aramaic term used, urechitzu, is from the same root as rachatz, to wash] in the Merciful One, the Master of the world . . . and came before Moses . . . and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Sanctuary. (Targum Yonatan, Numbers 27:1)

They gave the matter up to G‑d, and cleansed themselves of attachment to anything less than truth. Although they wanted a favorable outcome, they didn’t want it against G‑d’s will.

This is the most critical step in the whole process. The purity of one’s will for truth determines the success of all subsequent stages. The more one renounces a personal agenda, the greater divine assistance one gains.

To “come clean” is to surrender all control, “entrusting the entire matter to the Merciful One, the Master of the world.”

Although reluctant to appear in public, Zelophehad’s daughters overcame their natural modesty because their question was fundamental. (Tiferet Tzion, Numbers 27:2)

The daughters of Zelophehad were living out a part of the written Torah, and wanted it to be accepted into the text. There is no holier mission than to reveal a Torah law that will influence the behavior of Jews till the end of time. The explication of beautiful insights is a blessed task, but to be the source of one of the 613 mitzvot is the highest possible honor.

Though the written Torah is fixed and final, the Oral Torah is constantly evolving. Each generation has new technologies and cultural phenomena with halachic implications that have not yet been explored. The process of formulating questions and generating halachic discourse is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. The daughters of Zelophehad are role models for this labor of applying Sinaitic law to contemporary situations. Every Jew in every generation has a part to play in this process of the evolution of the Oral Tradition.

The Midrash records the following dialogue between the daughters of Zelophehad and Moses:

Daughters: Give us a portion of the land along with our father’s brothers.

Moses: It is impossible for a daughter to inherit.

Daughters: Why?

Moses: You are women.

Daughters: Then let our mother enter into yibbum (levirate marriage—as is the law with the wife of a person who died “without seed”) and conceive an inheritor that way.

Moses: Impossible. Once there are children, yibbum is not possible.

Daughters: You are contradicting yourself, Moses. Either we are not “seed” and the obligation of yibbum applies to our mother, or we are “seed” and can inherit the land ourselves.

In that moment they convinced Moses. When he heard the justice of their complaint, he immediately presented their case before G‑d. (Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27)

The daughters of Zelophehad did not back down when encountering resistance. Moses said “no” at least three times before he conceded the logic of their position.

Similarly, a convert is refused three times. Only candidates who are driven by the non-negotiable truth of their soul will find the motivation to overcome the obstacles and claim their place among the Jewish people.

The more one renounces a personal agenda, the greater Divine assistance one gains

Every new concept or halachic decision to become part of Torah is a “convert” of sorts. A new spark is seeking entry into the community of Israel. It, too, will be refused at least three times, but eventually it will find its way in, for no spark is ever permanently exiled. Every truth will find its way back to Torah.

“The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly . . .” Rashi explains that G‑d was saying: “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it,] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see. (Rashi to Numbers 27:7; Targum Yonatan ibid.; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.; Sifri ibid.)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad saw something that he did not see. Each soul comes into the world with its own unique aspect of truth. Chassidic master Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen writes that every Jew has a part of the Oral Torah—whether it is an actual law, or a particular application of a law—that becomes revealed only through the singular circumstances of his or her life (Likkutei Maamarim, pp. 80–81; Yisrael Kedoshim, p. 152).

There is a creative tension between the people and its leaders. On one hand, we defer to the wisdom of our elders; yet on the other, we may know something that they do not, because it is our piece of the Torah. When that happens, we have no choice but to engage in respectful dialogue, following the model of the daughters of Zelophehad, who found the way to transform personal wisdom into Oral Torah.

The daughters of Zelophehad were righteous women. They did not marry until they were forty years old. They waited for suitors worthy of them. (Talmud, Bava Batra 119b; Bamidbar Rabbah 21:11; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.)

Every choice has consequences, and sometimes, though the costs outweigh the gains, integrity requires that we take that path.

G‑d creates each soul with specific talents, for He wants certain revelations to come through them.

The daughters of Zelophehad developed themselves in ways that would narrow their options of finding appropriate marriage partners. Their exceptional intellect and integrity put them in a category that was not easily matched. And yet, our sages call them righteous because they refused to waste the precious gifts that G‑d had given them.

Lessons for the “Gatekeepers”

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad also has lessons for the rabbis, who are the gatekeepers, those responsible for selecting which changes enter and which do not. Some of these teachings are discussed in Midrashim (hermeneutic literature) and commentaries, while others are surmised by the absence of negative comment.

Conspicuously absent is any criticism from Moses, or later commentaries, regarding the gender appropriateness of their action. No one even hints that the daughters of Zelophehad stepped out of bounds when they came before the entire congregation and publicly presented their petition to Moses and the elders.

The faith and intellectual strength of women is a resource we cannot squander

Also conspicuously absent is any indication that the rabbis were personally threatened by the assertiveness or intellectual prowess of Zelophehad’s daughters.

The contrast is poignant. While the men were calling for mutiny, abandoning Israel and preparing to turn back to Egypt (Numbers 14:4), the daughters of Zelophehad kept their sights forward and asked for their own portion of the Land.

The Midrash tells us that when Moses questioned their strength of faith, they said (paraphrasing Psalms 119:126): “When the people are abandoning Your Torah (i.e., the men are turning back to Egypt), it is time to intensify commitment to the service of G‑d.”

The Midrash then gives an example that supports the principle which was cited by the daughters of Zelophehad. The story concerns a young Jewish woman captive who became the maidservant of a Syrian general. Her knowledge of the detailed laws of leprosy became a means to sanctify G‑d’s Name. The Midrash wonders how this woman became so educated in such an esoteric matter of law, especially at a time when even the men had abandoned learning. It replies that she learned in her father’s house that “when the people are abandoning the Torah, [one makes use of every resource at one’s disposal—including the women’s abilities—to strengthen the remnant] that holds strong to the service of G‑d.” (Sifri Zuta 27:1; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.)

A parallel can be found with our own times. Since we are now in a time of national crisis, with Jews assimilating at a frighteningly rapid rate, the faith and intellectual strength of women is a resource we cannot squander. There are women in this generation who are deeply rooted in love and fear of G‑d, and who possess strength of mind and love of Torah that can be of great service to the Jewish people. This Midrash implies that in such circumstances, “it is a time to do for G‑d” and empower women wherever halachah permits. If a law is clear and closed, so be it. But if the law has room to expand, then the Midrash argues for empowering women to serve their people with all their G‑d-given gifts.

The Torah is teaching us the power of the righteous. The daughters of Zelophehad presented their petition to Moses . . . and Moses prayed to G‑d to concede to their request and to permit them a portion in the land. G‑d agreed to Moses’ prayer, as the Midrash says, “Moses commanded, and G‑d obeyed him.” (Maor v’Shemesh, Massei)

Because Moses so empathized with their dilemma and respected their love of the Land, he prayed for a favorable verdict. This implies that it was Moses’ prayer that actually brought about the positive decision.

If modern women felt that rabbis had this kind of empathy with their yearning for more formal study or fuller participation in community life, they would accept their decisions willingly. When, instead, they feel condemned for wanting to express themselves in ways that are deeply rooted in Torah but not typical of their female role, an adversarial relationship develops.

Moses prayed to be able to give them a favorable verdict. As much as he wanted truth, he wanted to share something with them that was objectively good, something for which he himself longed (i.e., the Land) which was not, under normal circumstances, available to women.

The Torah is teaching a powerful lesson to the rabbis of today. If they are to imitate Moses, then they must find compassion for the women who approach them with halachic petitions. Their empathy should be so compelling that it moves them to prayer: Let it be Your will that Your halachah permit a favorable judgment, a judgment that will enable the fullest expression of service for all involved.

Only after reaching genuine empathy with the petitioner should the rabbi begin his halachic research.

The chassidic masters tell us that the Torah’s stories spiral through history, so that each generation relives some particular stage in the Israelites’ forty-two-leg journey from Egypt to the Holy Land. The incident of the daughters of Zelophehad occurs on the steppes of Moab, the last stop on this journey. Thus, its reenactment in the six-millennia scale of history will be one of the last developments before the messianic age. It is therefore no surprise that a growing number of women in this generation identify with the daughters of Zelophehad and find their own yearnings mirrored in their tale.

Sarah Schneider is the author of the books Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine and Eating as Tikkun, as well as numerous journal articles. She is the founding director of A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school that provides weekly teachings in classical Jewish wisdom to subscribers around the world, and lives in the Old City of Jerusalem.
From B’Or HaTorah Journal: Science, Art and Modern Life in the Light of Torah. B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.
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Tirzah Toronto (for now) July 18, 2017

Tzlaphchad was righteous for not participating in the sin of Korach and by setting an example so bnei Israel would not turn away from Hashem's laws. The daughter's of Tzlaphchad (Hoglah, Machlah, Milkah, Noa and Tirzah were righteous in their love & passion for Hashem, his promised land, and living out of their 'father's contribution' to/in the land of Israel, is what fueled their bold move. The father and his daughters went above and beyond in order to make Hashem's will known to "man".
My question has always been, if they were so connected to Hashem, that they already knew his will before approaching the courts, why then were women not selected for higher spiritual positions. If in fact (& I truly believe) (most) women are more spiritually connected to Hashem?
Since I was a little girl in rabbi's study class with my parents, this has been my favorite of the stories. I retell it often enough when people ask the origin of my name - my mother named me for Tirzah Reply

Moishe Montreal July 9, 2014

As rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted, the Torah is permanent, the Halacha changes.
Thus, until about a hundred years ago, girls of Eastern Europe did not learn Torah in schools. It took Sarah Schenirer to convince the rabbis of her time that Torah education was desirable for girls, and they ultimately agreed with her, and the Bais Yaakov movement was born. Women's learning has progressed, and now many become serious Torah scholars, which is of benefit to all. Reply

Anonymous toronto June 3, 2014

share The land and the restrictive life of Torah was for the purpose of claiming the share of the Father in the promised land of Israel. Women are persistent when it comes to their place in the Torah and every difficult place only taught them to be stubborn.They have not claimed it for one person but for their family so generation of ancestors will be redeemed. Reply

Anonymous Cape Town, South Africa June 27, 2013

men's motives To anonymous of Calgary, could the answer be competitiveness? More competitiveness among a male-only group, hence greater improvement. Women don't have the same need to be top dog. To Rabbi Freeman, if men leave because women are included, one has to question the men's motives. Are they there to serve G-d or themselves? Is it a house of worship or an old boys' club?
Great article. Reply

Ilan June 26, 2013

Excellent article Great explanations.

It sounds like you can be one of those daughters Reply

Shay Taos, NM July 15, 2012

minyan The rabbi's interesting comment about the only way to keep men attending is to make them necessary to the minyan reminds me of a trick that most wives use at some point to get a husband to help a bit around the house: claim to be too weak to move something, or too stupid to understand the directions, or afraid of a smell, etc. It works, but is it really a step towards partnership?

My beloved husband is, under our old tribal rules, technically Jewish. But he received no Jewish education, and most of his Bible knowledge comes from the Catholic elementary school he attended. During our courtship he studied a bit of Hebrew, and with a nudge he's (barely) willing to show up at synagogue for a yarzheit, so I am grateful, but I am not sure that it builds up Judaism, or our children's experience of it to trick men who dislike religion into making an appearance. Why not go beyond empty rules and honor a deeper spirituality that a man can choose to join? Reply

Mrs. lisa huntsman July 14, 2011

A Daughter of Zelophehad Speaks Thank you for this insightful essay. Maybe those of us (women) who have a strong pull toward learning and teaching are descendants of the Zelopphed sisters, but in any case, the principle of respect and support for intelligent speech, at the best time, toward their leaders is an everlasting principle.
This principle applies to husbands listening and being supportive to their wives, children petitioning parents, employees petitioning employers...( and visa versa) the list could go on. Reply

Alcita Ferreira Brown Milwaukee, WI/USA November 12, 2010

Courageous Women I enjoyed your blog and especially the emphasis on courage to act. I have found God inspiring me to courageous acts at many points in my life. Thank you. Reply

Donald Ostrander Burgaw, NC,USA May 8, 2010

"wonderful article" I enjoyed your article, and the artful way you presented your petition / thought. I believe you may well be related to the daughters of Zelophehad yourself. I love the story of Huldah the prophetess as well. And, wonder if she contributed more than what is commonly known to the revival of the Temple in Josiah time. I'm a male non-Jewish Torah believer that has access to study through books and the internet only and can well relate to at least some of your longings for true fellowship and greater feeling of belonging. Thank you much for the "Word" / insight you taught me. Reply

Anonymous Calgary, AB August 6, 2009

Science today is showing that boys and girls who attend separate classes achieve much higher grades than when mixed together. The interesting thing, is that boys really improved, way and above over girls, when separated. Why? I don't know, but it is something to note. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman July 10, 2009

Re: minyan The minyanim I know of that began counting woman ended up with almost no men. It's not a solution--on the contrary: counting men only is a great way to get men who otherwise would never attend to get involved. Reply

Anonymous winnipeg, canada July 10, 2009

minyan Is there anything in halakah that forbids a woman to be part of a minyan? As your article points out, Judaism is rapidly losing observant Jews. The daughters of Zelophehad were equal before G-d. How can this equality not extend to women for a minyan? Reply

Dean Bennett Royal Palm Beach , Fl. July 8, 2009

If you don't become more open to the role of women beyond the traditional standard, you're going to lose some of your best to the Conservative. Reform, or Reconstructionist movements. Worse, some - like my grandfather - may turn their backs on the faith for the seeming freedom of the secular society.. But what do I know? I'm just a convert that the Orthodox establishment would not even consider Jewish. Oh well, some questions the L-rd will decide. If not in this world but the next. We pay a high price if we allow the living oral law to become a non-living dogma, just to maintain an establishment's power. Reply

Toni Benjamin Buffalo, ny April 1, 2009

Age of t he daughters Please give me some insight to find the ages of the daughters. Some say they were teenagers, and I have read (and agree) with them being at 'least' 40. Where can I find the answer? Reply

Myriam S. Gabbay Brooklyn, NY February 15, 2009

Bnos Zelophchad A very powerful piece of writing. I always knew that this incident held the answers for Jewish women but you have drawn out the important details so we can apply it to our own lives. Certainly the women's lib movement can learn a lot from this. They often sacrifice truth and their own dignity and destiny in order to achieve their sought after goals which often didn't turn out to the "pot of gold" that they thought it would be. Reply

Eliezer Posner, Brooklyn, NY November 25, 2008

RE: offspring of the daughters of Zelophehad The Talmud (Baba Basra 119b) tells us that Zelophehad's daughters were very righteous, and therefore only wanted to marry men of high caliber. Because they were waiting until "Mr. Right" came along, none of them got married younger than 40. Despite their advanced age, they miraculously bore children. Reply

chariklia November 23, 2008

a daughter of zelophehad how wonderful and well documented piece. i thoroughly enjoyed it! thanks.
Just curious, do you know if the daughters of Zelophehad had any children? We know they married their first cousins, but how about any progeny? That would make their case stronger. any feedback would be apprecitated Reply

Anonymous Montreal, canada July 21, 2008

The daughters of.. I felt empowered by this article.
Both a desire to learn Torah and a deep sense of pride of being a woman in the messianic era.
A sens of duty also , to claim my rights but to do so in an educate way; one of patience and of self-confidence which has to be learned. Reply

Riqi Kosovske northampton, MA July 18, 2008

Yashar kochech and todah Thank you Sarah for such a wonderful d'var Torah which I will take to heart and share in many ways. I love your points for social action and your poetic metaphor that "Every new concept or Halachic decision to become part of Torah is a “convert” of sorts" and a holy spark seeking entry.
Shabbat shalom Reply

Anonymous July 16, 2008

intrigued Thank you for this most intriguing article. As a fellow woman I'd be grateful if the author could give examples of the contemporary issues or halachic rulings to which she is referring. Reply

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B'or HaTorah
B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.