The Daughters of Zelophehad (בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד) were five sisters – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah – mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, (Numbers 27) who lived at the end of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt as they prepared to enter the Promised Land and who raised before the Israelite community the case of a woman’s right and obligation to inherit property in the absence of a male heir in the family. Zelophehad (meaning “dark shadow”), a man of the Tribe of Manasseh, had five daughters but no sons, and therefore no male heirs.
We read in Parshat Pinchas:
The Daughters of Zelophehad stood before Moshe…. And they said, “Our father died ….”
B’Midbar (Numbers) 27.2
Naturally, the question arises, “may a woman testify in a Jewish court of law?” If not, then why didn’t Moshe and the entire Congregation object to their stating their case for inheritance? Because they spoke out on behalf of all Jewish women who might be heiresses!
Here, the Torah’s text, explicitly states the daughters stood – va’ta’amodnah. וַתַּֽעֲמֹ֜דְנָה
It is witnesses who testify standing. “And they said, Our father died in the wilderness for his own sin,” meaning that they testified to their status as daughters [of a sinner] but also they testified that they were not a rebellious company who were assembled to challenge Moshe’s authority like the assembly of Korach; that they merely wanted their father’s inheritable property to pass to themselves so that his inheritance not be blotted out amongst their father’s brethren, viz, that their father’s name be counted amongst the census of Moshe and Eleazar the Kohen otherwise they and their children would be landless.
“They know that the continuity of family name depends on inheritance of the land; and they realize that the current law is not adequate, for it does not take into account the unusual circumstances of a man without sons. They possess the acumen to recognize this omission–in God’s law! But because they consider God’s law to be just, or to aim to be just, they show no hesitation in pointing out the unfair nature of the present situation with complete confidence and supporting their claim with compelling arguments.” <http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-daughters-of-zelophehad-power-and-uniqueness/>
26.63 “This was the census of Moses and Eleazar the kohen, who counted the children of Israel in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.”
“As the census was concluded, God instructs Moses: “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares” (v, 53). “Among these” refers to the males listed in the census; hence, we can conclude that Zelophehad’s daughters were not counted in the census and also were not to receive any land as inheritance.” My Jewish Learning – Daughters of Zelophehad….
Knowing that they (as women or daughters) were excluded from the census (26.28-33) and there was to be an orderly distribution of property B’Eretz Yisrael, these daughters seized the opportunity of the moment, sought to “keep their father’s name and inheritance from passing into oblivion” (from this we learn that casting of lots for inheritable property lay in male heirs only, until these women “drew near”) and gave honor to their father (even though he was a sinner)! Then they modestly defended their father’s honor and eliminated any shadow of doubt that their cause was just by mentioning Korach’s rebellion. (note that Korach’s sons did not perish in the rebellion against HaShem.)
27.4 “Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family [merely] because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers.”
Lamah yigara (see also Numbers 9.7 לָמָּה נִגָּרַע). This is one of those instances where Moshe was unable to make an immediate judgement and thus the Torah assigns honor and merit to those who “stand their ground” not wavering in the course of a just cause! While their case is different from 9.7, the Torah uses the same expression לָמָּה יִגָּרַע to convey urgency in the matter at hand. Here, their timing was impecable.
It was taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were exegetes, they were virtuous.
They [must] have been wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment; for R. Samuel son of R. Isaac said: [Scripture] teaches that Moses our master was sitting and holding forth an exposition on the section of levirate marriages, as it is said, If brethren dwell together.26 They said unto him:27 ‘If we are [to be as good] as son[s],28 give us an inheritance as [to] a son; if not,29 let our mother be subject to the law of levirate marriage!’ And Moses, immediately. brought their cause before the Lord.30
They [must] have been exegetes, for they said: ‘If he had a son we would not have spoken’.31 But was it not taught: ‘a daughter’?32 — R. Jeremiah said: Delete, ‘daughter’, from here.33 Abaye said: [The explanation is that they said]: ‘Even if a son [of his] had a daughter. we would not have spoken’.34
They were virtuous, since they were married to such men only as were worthy of them.35
R. Eliezer b. Jacob taught: Even the youngest among them was not married under forty years of age.36 But can this he so? Surely, R. Hisda said: [One who] marries under twenty years of age beget till sixty; [at] twenty, begets till forty. [at] forty, does not beget any more!37 — Since, however, they were virtuous, a miracle happened in their case38 as [in that of] Jochebed.
36.10 Even as the LORD commanded Moses, so did the daughters of Zelophehad.
Moshe was punished?
And the cause that is too hard for you, bring unto me.6 R. Hanina, [according to some, R. Josiah,] says: For this utterance Moses was punished,7 as we can infer from this later passage: And Moses brought their cause before the Lord.8
R. Nahman objects to this comment, and asks: Did Moses say: ‘Bring it unto me and I will let you hear it’? No, he said: ‘I will hear it; if I am instructed, it is well! If not, I will get me instruction [how to deal with it]’. And the case of the daughters of Zelophehad is to be explained as was taught:9 The section relating to the laws of inheritance was intended to have been written at the instance of Moses our Teacher. The daughters of Zelophehad, however, were found worthy to have the section recorded on their account. Similarly, the law concerning the gathering of sticks on the Sabbath10 was to have been written at the instance of Moses our Teacher. The gatherer, however, was found culpable, and so it was recorded on his account. This is to teach us that evil is brought about through the agency of sinful men, and good through that of worthy men.
7) Because he attached too much authority to himself.
The daughters of Zelophehad were righteous women and deserved, therefore, that a section of the Torah conferring rights and privileges on certain heirs should be written at their instance.
So how was Moshe punished? The case of the question of female heirs was a lesson in humility for Moshe! Even though he was the most humble of men he still had room to be humble, to learn that not every case is clear cut!
“Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.” Note: B’Midbar 36
Here, the daughters show their intelligence. A census has just been taken and the women were not counted. So they “drew near” to the seat of authority. The Torah identifies them as Daughters of Zelophehad and explains by general reference to their father’s sin and Korach’s rebellion, that they are not challenging Moshe’s or anyone else’s authority.
The Torah has identified them as Daughters of Zelophehad meaning that they were not following in his foot-steps; that is, they had no intention of sinning as he had, and so therefore it was unjust to exclude them from inheriting his allotment of real estate merely “because he had no son.”
He was not of those who “sinned against the Land of Israel,” as in Korach’s rebellion (16.14) or the sin of the spies (speaking against the land).
Here, it seems to me that they are defending the honor of their father; perhaps they thought, “Just because the Holy One did not give our father a son to inherit his allotted portion of the land, does not mean he merits to have his name erased from the census merely because he was a transgressor and we are his daughters!”
Joshua 17.3 But Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, had no sons, but daughters; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah
Our Rabbis taught: The gatherer was Zelophehad. And thus it is said, and while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man [gathering sticks, etc.];27 whilst elsewhere it is said, our father died in the wilderness;28 just as there Zelophehad [is meant], so here too Zelophehad [is meant]: this is R. Akiba’s view. Said R. Judah b. Bathyra to him, ‘Akiba! in either case you will have to give an account [for your statement]: if you are right,29 the Torah shielded30 him, while you reveal him; and if not, you cast a stigma upon a righteous man.’
Num. XV, 32
Ibid. XXVII, 3.
Lit., ‘if it is as your words’.