In Mattot-Masei, we learn of Zelophehad’s daughters and their successful inheritance claim on property in the Promised Land. The story has all the trappings of a proto-feminist Biblical footnote, a fact substantiated by the sisters’ recurring appearance in Jewish women’s journals and literature. And we cannot deny these five plucky women their victory – the parashah, after all, ends with their appeal succeeding. But their win is softened by their concession: in order to claim what is rightfully theirs, they have to marry a man from their tribe, a move generally frowned upon at the time, and only offered as a solution in this instance so that if the property had to go to women, it would at least remain in the tribe – in other words, the house wins either way. Did these five women indeed have ‘the art of the deal’? Or did they just get played?
Zelophehad was part of the generation of Israelites who fled Egypt under Moses’ leadership – the generation destined to die before reaching the Promised Land. His daughters, however, were part of the new generation, untarnished by the memory of slavery, who would live to see the land of milk and honey. For these lucky Israelites, the land had been apportioned, with each person receiving their fair share. The catch – this utopian land division was only applicable to male members of the second generation. So when Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah come to Moses to appeal this regulation, they do not argue that it is their ‘right’ (not wishing to be both proto-feminist and proto-millennial). Rather, their case is built on protecting the ego of their deceased father. Just because he was unfortunate enough to have had not one son (and five daughters, noch!) he should not lose out on what is rightfully his, even after death.
Moses takes the daughters’ case to God, who announces his decision. It is through the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, therefore, that we arrive at the first articulation of Jewish laws around inheritance: should there be no son, the daughters shall have first inheritance rights, followed by other male relatives in a set sequence.
And yet, as we see from their example, this development is framed not around a perceived justice for women. Rather, it is to avoid potential injustice for the deceased man. Furthermore, in their case, there is a crucial amendment. Male members of Zelophehad’s tribe understood the personal ramifications of God’s ruling – as property is automatically transferred to the husband after marriage, their tribe would lose their collective property should the daughters marry outside the tribe. As a result, the final ruling sees Zelophehad’s daughters only being able to claim their inheritance if they marry a member of their tribe.
The appeal of Zelophehad’s daughters therefore represents a loss on two counts: first, their case does not represent a recuperation of their own rights, but is built on an upholding of their father’s; and second, in agreeing to Moses’ amendment, they lose their freedom to marry outside their tribe. In the Talmud, these five women are described as ‘wise’ and ‘righteous’ (Bava Batra 119b): ‘That they are righteous can be seen from the fact that they did not rush to marry, but rather waited to marry those fit for them. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov teaches: Even the youngest to be married among them was not married at less than forty years of age.’ Following this logic, perhaps, their mistake was to have married at all. Maybe in the case of Zelophehad’s daughters, no deal was better than a bad deal.
Chloe Julius is the editor of Quest, an annual Jewish critical journal she co-edits with her brother Max
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