Zelophehad’s Daughters: Movement, Innovation, Life

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters begin in Parashat Pinchas. Zelophehad’s five daughters come to Moses asking to inherit their father’s land, since he died without a male heir: why would our father’s name disappear because he has no son? they ask, give us a land in our father’s tribe, they request.

Zelophehad’s daughters do not cry for their father or for the fact they are orphaned, they do not ask for Moses’ mercy, but raise an argument that invites an innovative interpretation of Torah law. Moses is silent. Some interpreters argue that this indicates that the tribal lands in Israel represent not only a legal issue, but also refer to love and devotion to Erez Israel (The Land of Israel), and that is why God responds: The daughters of Zelophehad speak right.

The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

In Parashat Masai, representatives of the tribe of Menashe, Zelophehad’s tribe, come to Moses to express their concern that if the daughter who inherits her father’s land marries a man outside her tribe, the tribe will lose the land.

While the inheritance of a daughter is defined as a law, the daughter’s marriage remains within the daughter’s discretion. The five daughters of Zelophehad are free to choose their husbands. The sages saw Zelophehad’s daughters in a positive light calling them wise, righteous and learned. The abolition of the restriction on marriage between the tribes of Israel is celebrated as a good day on Tu Be’av, because marriage symbolizes a union, the intertwining of the tribes into one nation. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk  (1843-1926) suggests that the sages understood that a restriction on inter-tribal marriage would separate the Israelite who needed to be united for their future survival.

In a rare occasion, the bible names the five daughters of Zelphehad: Noa, Hogla, Mahla, Malka and Tirza. In Hebrew their names have the root meaning of movement. What is life if not movement, renewal and innovation?

Image: Edward Poynter, Horae Serenae (1894)

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