The daughters of Zelophehad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)
The daughters of Zelophehad from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons" (1908)

A closer look at the heroism of the daughters of Zelophechad

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 25:10-30:1

Tucked deep inside the Book of Numbers is an episode related in fewer than a dozen verses. It’s about a group of women who approached Moses and insisted that they be given a portion of the land of Israel when they cross the Jordan River. There are several insights that can be gained by taking a closer look at the heroism of the five daughters of Zelophechad.

Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah are first mentioned in Numbers 27:1. They approached Moses, along with Elazar the Kohen and the leaders of the assembly, with the following complaint: Our father died in the wilderness, but he was not among the assembly that was gathering against Hashem in the assembly of Korach, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.

Classic Torah commentaries point out that their motivation was completely pure. They wanted a portion in the Holy Land that was being promised to the Jewish people.

Rashi mentions that they inherited this love for the land from their ancestor Joseph, who insisted that his bones be taken up with the people and buried in Israel. They knew that the Land was being apportioned to families and awarded to the heads of households. Their father was to receive a portion had he made it across the river. The thought of his portion being erased because he had died too early was something that was disturbing to the daughters. Their response was to bring the matter straight to the top.

Moses’ response is something we can learn from. He does not chastise them as being selfish or having their own personal agenda. The next verse in the chapter simply states, “And Moses brought their claim before Hashem.” There is no personal judgement, just action. Hashem is the One who has given the land to the Jewish people and it is ultimately His will that must be followed with respect to land ownership.

The Torah relates the response of God with the opening words, “The daughters of Zelophechad speak properly.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) praises them and proclaims, “How praiseworthy is a person whom God concurs to his/her words!”

The women are given a parcel of land and told that if a man should have no sons, then his land should go to his daughter.

The resolution sounds wonderful. These women came and asked for land and now their father’s name will not be erased.

However, toward the end of the Book of Numbers, we hear about an epilogue to this story. The leaders of the tribe of Menashe, Zelophechad’s tribe of origin, approach Moses again and point out a technical issue with the previous ruling.

When a woman gets married, her husband inherits her holdings (as do their children), and if these women marry a man outside of their tribe, the collective land mass of that tribe will shrink accordingly. The land will then become part of the husband’s tribe. The women are told that they should only marry within their own tribe to avoid breaking up the territory.

The end of the story seems to take the wind out of the sails of the victory that they had achieved. They really only become landholders while they are single. What about establishing a name for their deceased father? Where is their outrage when they are limited to one-twelfth of the eligible bachelors?

It seems that the desire of the women was not for their own honor, but really for that of their father. He was supposed to go into the land and receive a portion like everyone else, and they wanted him to have that legacy as the first generation of settlers of the Land of Israel.

The fact it would not last as his eternal legacy, as a deed on the property, was not their concern. They just wanted their father to be listed among the originators of the Jewish people as they actualize their spiritual destiny in the Land of Israel.

The restriction of marrying within their own tribe, and not the other 11, was not something that they opposed. They wanted their father’s legacy to be among his brethren to begin with.

The daughters of Zelophechad demonstrated a selfless desire to perpetuate their father’s legacy. There was a time when it was clear that having a stake in the Land of Israel was tantamount to being part of the Jewish people. To these five women, it was a clear desire that earned them the respect of Moses and all of the elders.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.