Parshat Pinchas

Bamidbar 27:1-112(Robert Alter, trans.)

And the daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh of the clans of Manasseh, son of Joseph, came forward, and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noa, and Hoglah and Milcah and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses and before Eleazar the priest and before the chieftains and all the community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, saying, “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not part of the community that banded together against the LORD with the community of Korah, for through his own offense he died, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name be withdrawn from the midst of his clan because he had no son? Give us a holding in the midst of our father’s brothers.” And Moses brought forward their case before the LORD. And the LORD said to Moses, saying, “Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers and you shall pass on their father’s estate to them. And to the Israelite you shall speak, saying, ‘Should a man die without having a son, you shall pass on his estate to his daughter. And if he has no daughter, you shall give his estate to his brothers. … And this shall be a statute of law for the Israelites as the LORD has charged Moses.'”

Robert Alter

Our father died: The choice of the favored instrument of biblical narrative — dialogue — for making this case has expressive consequences. The issue of daughters’ inheritance in the absence of male offspring is not presented as an abstract legal precedent but as an impassioned plea for justice — “Why should our father’s name be withdrawn…? Give us a holding” — by these five young women who fear that the patriarchal system of inheritance will deprive them of their rights. Though the notion of daughters’ inheriting was exceptional in the ancient Near East, this is story is something other than a feminist argument. The chief concern is not to lose inheritance pertaining to the clan, not to allow the “name” of the clan to disappear. But since the holdings of the clans were defined within tribal territories, the whole system would have been upset if the daughters were to marry outside the tribe. The follow-up to this episode in chapter 36 therefore stipulates that they are obliged to marry within the tribe. 

for through his own offense he died: This would most plausibly be the “offense” of all the adults of the Wilderness generation after the episode of the spies. The daughters assume, as Abraham ibn Ezra notes, that the active conspirators against the LORD in the Korah rebellion are to be punished more severely, by death and by denial of inheritance to their descendants.

Avivah Zornberg

The most striking moment in this legal drama is the moment when God approves their plea: Ken bnot Tzelofchad dovrot: “They speak ken [rightly, justly].” Before instructing Moses to give the women the family land, God speaks about their act of speech. This unprecedented divine compliment resonates powerfully toward the end of a book in which so many unhappy acts of speech have been recorded. … after forty years of misspeaking — five sisters achieve an act of dibbur that gains a gratified response from God, all the more intense for the misfires of the past. (Ken, God says–Yes! At last!)

The frame narrative introduces them by listing their ancestry: five male names that link them back to Joseph; this is followed by the women’s names — five names … Women’s names in such a list is in itself unexpected … The place in which the women stand … is framed by male names. This structure gives us the sense of the world, the field, in which the women speak …

However, in spite of their assertive tone, these five sisters express no feminist aspirations. Even to describe them as “five sisters” is, in a sense, to skew the biblical presentation: they are daughters of a man … they seek a place within the family, the clan, the tribe. And yet, surprisingly, their names are listed, a female roll call. 

Rashi (as translated by Avivah Zornberg)

“The daughters of Tzelofchad speak right”: Read the word ken as the Targum does: ya-ut — rightly, properly. God said: Exactly so is this chapter written before Me on high. This tells us that their eye saw what Moses’ eye did not see.

Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 21:12, Avivah Zornberg, trans.

[God taunts Moses]: “The law that you don’t know, women discuss it!”

Yalkut Shimoni 773, Avivah Zornberg, trans.

These women rose up in the generation of the wilderness and merited to take the reward of all of them. This teaches you at what moment they stood before Moses — at the moment that Israel were saying, Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt! Moses said, But Israel are demanding to return to Egypt, and you demand an inheritance in the Land! They answered, We know that in the end all Israel will claim their share in the Land; as it is said, “It is time to act for God — they have transgressed Your Torah!” Don’t read like this; read, “They have transgressed Your Torah in acting for God! … Where there is no man, try to be a man!

Avivah Zornberg on Yalkut Shimoni

Pushing against obvious chronology, the midrash extends the meaning of sha’ah: the moment of the Spies’ revolt remains the emotional moment of that “wilderness generation,” even into the second generation. From start to finish, an emotional and spiritual undertow draws them back to Egypt. In the face of this, the women speak.

Here, then, to speak at the right moment is to speak precisely at the wrong moment. It is to speak without the support of conventional frameworks; to speak at the particular historical moment when one’s speech will resound uncannily — when it may create change.

Here, the women transgress no formal commandments. But inspired by the energy of loving conviction, they speak against the status quo of legal understanding. They speak with a fierce serenity. They represent an emergency ethic. Their passion becomes a paradigm for all human courage in the face of conformity.

“Where there is no man, try to be a man!” Of course, the midrashic authors are fully aware of the shock effect of this aphorism as applied to women. Unmistakably gendered, “Try to be a man, gever” evokes masculine might (gevurah) as the aspiration — and achievement — of these women. For a moment, the reader is jarred; the boundaries of gender slip.

Avivah Zornberg

In a climate of ongoing skepticism [about the Promised Land] — the climate of the Book of the Wilderness — in which faith, trust, and love are constantly challenged, these women speak, breathe a different language. In a moment of emergency, they emerge from the swarm of life. Without assurance that they will be heard, they allows themselves to be known.

women … shift boundaries: they transfer, translate, reframe realities.

This new ethos — initially disruptive of the status quo — is greeted by God with enthusiasm. 

[the] Sefat Emet suggests that this shift from a masculine modality to a feminine one explains why this law of feminine inheritance is hidden from Moses. … He is unable to “see” the law that the women see so justly.  Without sarcasm, Sefat Emet reads this midrash with a new lucidity: “The law that you don’t know, the women frame,” God tells Moses.

Here begins the regime of the Oral Law, signaled by the daughters of Tzelofchad …

The daughters of Tzelofchad mark the transition from the direct revelations of Moses to the world of interpretation. They relate to the Torah in a different way than what was represented by Moses and Aaron. Their actions are paradoxical — with decorum, yet radical, audacious, yet faithful.