The Case Of The Five Sisters


“The daughters of Tzelofhad speak right. You shall surely give them a hereditary portion of land alongside that of their father’s brethren” [Numbers 27:7].

One of the most fascinating aspects of the entire Torah is the portion which deals with the case of the daughters of Tzelofhad, an incident of such significance that it is repeated at the conclusion of the book of Numbers. How much faith we learn from these resourceful and irrepressible women!

However, a most interesting secondary question may be pondered from the midrashic study of the case. Is it permissible for men to learn Torah from women in the first place? The Talmud [Bava Batra 119] pictures Moses giving a class on levirate marriage, with the five Tzelofhad sisters in attendance. They raise a question before Moses: Is a daughter to be respected as progeny and heir to her father’s estate, or not? If not, then you must allow our widowed mother to marry her deceased husband’s brother and be supported by him as the respected wife of a levirate marriage, just as though she hadn’t had daughters, at all. But if we daughters are considered progeny enough to exclude our mother from a levirate marriage, then you must allow us to inherit from our father! God decides in favor of the sisters. It would seem that we certainly can learn Torah from women.

The Bible refers to two fundamental Jewish ideals, Torah and the Land of Israel, as morasha, a heritage, rather than yerusha, an inheritance [see Exodus 6:8 and Deuteronomy 33:4]. From a literal perspective, “heritage” (morasha) connotes more than “inheritance.” An inheritance can be money, and may be squandered away. A heritage is an heirloom, like candlesticks or a Kiddush goblet, and is meant to be passed down to one’s children.

The requisite of Torah study applies to women as well as to men: “And the Lord called to [Moses] from the mountain saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob,’” referring to the women, says Rashi, “and shall you declare to the Children of Israel,” referring to the men, says Rashi [Ex. 19:3]. Therefore, the commandment of hak’hel, to gather the Israelites once every seven years and establish a reaffirmation of the Covenant via a public study of Torah, includes the women as well as the men [Deut. 31:12]. And if women must learn and accept Torah (at least the portions of Torah necessary to properly observe the commandments), then they must likewise be responsible to pass Torah down to the next generation — parent to child, teacher to student.

It is for this reason that Deborah is praised as one of the first judges in Israel [Judges 4:4-5]; that Bruriah disagreed halachically with her father, Rabbi Hanina ben-Teradion, and her view is recorded [Tosefta Kelim 4]; and that the Sefer HaHinuch rules [Negative Commandment 152] that a learned woman fit to render religio-legal decisions may do so. (Similarly rule the Hida, Barki Yosef Hoshen Mishpat 7:12, and the Rishon LeTzion HaRav Bakshi Doron, Binyan Av Siman 65.) To cite only one anecdotal example among many, when a difficult eruv question came up before a number of scholars, the grandmother of Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi adjudicated the matter, and everyone acquiesced to her decision [Sefer HaZichronot, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, Part 2].

The practical Torah that we learn from the daughters of Tzelofhad is that women do not only have a portion of Torah, but that they also have a portion in the Holy Land of Israel. Their particular case, ultimately adjudicated by God Himself because Moses did not have the answer, was that they were correct in insisting that since their father had no sons, they — the five sisters — were to receive their rightful portions in the Land of Israel [Num. 27:7]. As a direct result of their vindication, the Almighty conveyed all of the laws of inheritance to Moses and Israel [Num. 27:8-11]. Indeed, women’s inheritance rights developed from this case to such an extent that if a father bequeaths only a small amount of property, the daughters’ sustenance and dowries must be provided for — even if nothing will be left over for the sons [Ketubot 108b].

But what we really learn from the daughters of Tzelofhad is their true love of the Land of Israel.

It is on this basis that Rabbi Ephraim of Lunschitz, known as the Kli Yakar, gives the following “feminist” spin to his interpretation of the first verse of the sin of the scouts: “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send forth your men that they may scout out the Land’” [Num. 13:2]. Writes the Kli Yakar: “Since our Sages teach that it was [only] men who disparaged the Land [of Israel] and said, ‘let us return to Egypt,’ whereas the women loved the Land, as they [the daughters of Tzelofhad] said ‘Give us an inheritance,’ the Holy One blessed be He, who knows the future, said it would be better to send women, but [unfortunately], you [Moses] trusted [your] men.”

God understood that only tragedy would result from a reconnaissance mission consisting only of men.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:59 p.m.

Torah: Num. 25:10 – 30:1

Haftarah: I Kings 18:46-19:21

Havdalah: 8:59 p.m.