Assuring Women a Seat at the Table


Parshat Pinchas begins against the backdrop of last week’s description of Israelite men engaging in sexual immorality with Midianite and Moabite women who in turn lead them to idol worship. In this week’s portion, Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, is rewarded by God with the priesthood for his zealotry in killing one of the Jewish tribal princes, Zimri, and Cozbi, the Midianite princess Zimri was cohabiting with.

Juxtaposed to the actions of the Midianite and Moabite women who sought to undermine the spiritual morality of Jewish men, we are introduced here to the polar opposite: righteous Jewish women, the daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. A census takes place that will determine how the land of Israel would be apportioned. The daughters of Zelophehad come forward, stand before Moshe, Eleazar the priest and other male leaders of the community, and say that their father died in the desert. He wasn’t part of Korach’s rebellious band; he died for his own sins, but he died without leaving any sons. They ask — “Why should our father’s name disappear, be disadvantaged in his family, merely because he had no son? Give us a portion of land along with our father’s brothers.”

Moshe decides to bring their petition before God. God says, “The daughters of Zelophehad speak justly. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father’s brothers. Let their father’s hereditary property thus pass over to them.” Furthermore, God says, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If a man dies and has no sons, his hereditary property shall pass over to his daughter …” [Numbers 27:1-9].

Here we see two examples of dealing with Jewish continuity. If Pinchas approached it with the sword, the Daughters of Zelophehad approached it with the power of their words. Midrash fleshes out the story and their motivation even further: When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of mankind. Mankind favors men over women. God is not like that. God’s compassion extends to men and women alike” [Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27; Sifri, Numbers 27:1]. Talmud says the daughters were wise, because they presented their petition at the right time: They approached Moshe while he was “sitting and interpreting” the laws of inheritance [Bava Batra 119b; Bamidbar Rabbah 21:11]. They raised an issue that cut to the heart of what they saw as their role within their clan and larger Jewish peoplehood, and they knew when and how to frame the problem. In the Yalkut Shimoni, Moshe rejects their request, saying it is impossible for women to inherit. The daughters respond, “Then let our mother enter into yibbum” — that is, levirate marriage, in which a brother-in-law marries a childless widow — and conceive an heir that way. Moshe said that’s impossible: Their mother isn’t childless (literally, “without seed”)! Exactly. The daughters say, “Moshe, you are contradicting yourself. Either we are not ‘seed’ and the obligation of yibbum applies to our mother, or we are ‘seed’ and can inherit the land ourselves.”

Their persuasiveness and perseverance paid off and after three attempts, in that moment, they convinced Moses. When he heard the justice of their complaint, says Midrash, he immediately presented their case before God [Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas 27].

The Daughters of Zelophehad were rewarded for their devotion to the Land of Israel with inheriting their share. In many ways, though, they received an even greater reward by bequeathing to us a paradigm of women who seek to be part of Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael. Their courage and forthrightness serve as an inspiration to Jewish women across the centuries who have sought within a halachic framework to have a “seat at the table.” Our tradition includes such examples as Bruriah in the Talmud in the 1st century; Rashi’s daughters in the 11th century; Asenat Barzani, the head of the Yeshiva in Mosul, Kurdistan in the 17th century; and in the early part of the 20th century, Sarah Schenirer, in Poland, who received the approbation of leading rabbinic leaders such as the Gerrer Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim and the Belzer Rebbe to establish the Bais Yaakov schools for young women to stem the tide against assimilation. In our time, which has seen an explosive growth of Torah and spiritual education programs for women, the legacy of the Daughters of Zelophehad continues to resonate with all of us.

Rabbanit Adena Berkowitz is the scholar in residence at Kol HaNeshamah, NYC and senior educator at the Manhattan Jewish Experience. She is the co-author of “Shaarei Simcha-Gates of Joy,” a mini-prayer book, and “The Jewish Journey Haggadah.”

Candlelighting, Readings:

Candlelighting: 8:10 p.m.

Torah reading: Numbers 25:10-30:1

Haftorah reading: I Kings 18:46-19:21

Shabbat ends: 9:16 p.m.