Yeshivat Har Etzion
by Rav Zvi Shimon
I. Women of Valor
In Pinchas, the people of Israel begin preparations towards their appropriation of the promised land. Moshe counts the people in order to divide the land amongst the nation: "Among these the land shall be apportioned as shares" (Bemidbar 26:53). Our section lists the number of people in each tribe and their different families. Each family will be apportioned a part of the greater tribal inheritance and divide it amongst the sons of the family. One family, however, feels this method of division to be lacking:
"The daughters of Tzelofchad, the son of Chefer, the son of Gilad, the son of Machir the son of Menasheh, of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph came forward. The names of the daughters were Machla, Noa, Chogla, Milka and Tirza. They stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, 'Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach's faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Why should our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a possession among our father's kinsmen!' Moshe brought their case before the Lord" (Bemidbar 27:1-5).
The opening verse of our narrative recounts the lineage of the daughters of Tzelofchad: "The daughters of Tzelofchad, the son of Chefer, the son of Gilad, the son of Machir the son of Menasheh, of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph came forward." In addition to being unusually detailed and tracing the ancestry of the daughters of Tzelofchad six generations, the verse is, as Rashi notes, unnecessarily repetitive:
'Of the families of Menasheh the son of Joseph' (27:1) - Why is this stated? Was it not already stated, 'the son of Menasheh?' It is to inform you that Joseph cherished the land, as it is stated, 'you shall carry up my bones' (Bereishit 50:25), and his daughters cherished the land, as is stated, 'Give us a possession [among our father's kinsmen].'
The verse repeats the name Menasheh: "the son of Menasheh of the families of Menasheh son of Joseph." Rashi explains that the Torah wanted to highlight the ideological connection to Joseph (and not merely the genealogical) and therefore goes out of its way to state that Menasheh was the son of Joseph. Just as Joseph loved the land of Israel and requested that his remains be brought out from Egypt and buried in Israel, so do the daughters of Tzelofchad relish inheriting a part in the land. Although not yet in the promised land, their hearts yearn for it just as Joseph did while he was in Egypt.
Rabbi Hirsch emphasizes that the daughter's primary motivation was not the acquisition of land but rather the perpetuation of their father's name:
"'Let not our father's name be lost to his clan' (27:4) in the mouth of the daughters has an ethical meaning above the mere material interest in vested
property. Father, grandfather and great-grandfather
had all formed separate branches of the family and in
the forthcoming distribution of the land according to
families, their names would be perpetuated in the
name of the property allotted to them. However, in
the case of Tzelofchad the perpetuation of his name
would come to an end... and the extraordinary
opportunity for its perpetuation through the
distribution of the land in the names of the family
would be lost and his name would cease to be
The daughters of Tzelofchad were concerned lest their father's name be forgotten. They felt a responsibility to see to the perpetuation of his name. They combine both future and past. They eagerly
anticipate the nation's entry to and inheritance of the land of Israel and, simultaneously, wish to insure the commemoration of their father, of the previous
generation. Entry into a new land does not mean a disconnection or negation of the past. To the contrary, the daughters of Tzelofchad demonstrate how the land of Israel can promote and deepen our link to the past.
Now that we understand their motivation, let us attempt to appreciate the character of these women. What may we infer from the biblical narrative about their character? Our Sages recount the praise of these women:
"The daughters of Tzelofchad were wise, learned and
righteous ..." (Bava Batra 119b).
These women were smart. They knew how to present their case in a most convincing manner. According to our Sages, they could even hold their own in a legal debate with Moshe! However, they were not only clever, they were also learned in Jewish law. Our Sages state that they were able to infer from Scripture the minutiae of the laws of inheritance. Finally, they are regarded as righteous women for their commitment to the perpetuation of their father's name.
We might add an additional quality which stands out in the biblical narrative. These women were courageous. Scripture stresses that "they stood before Moshe, Elazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting" (27:2). The Torah stresses how they were willing to present their case before the entire leadership of the nation. One could imagine the pressure they must have felt when standing before the greatest of all prophets and before the entire assembly. They nevertheless did not shy away from their convictions. They believed they were right and they were willing to take their case to the highest court in the nation.
Interestingly, our Sages note a general spiritual advantage of the women of Israel over the men during the travels in the wilderness:
In that generation the women repaired that which the
men blundered. Thus you find [in the sin of the
golden calf] that Aaron told [the Israelites], "Take
off the gold rings that are on the ears of your
wives" (Shemot 32:2), but the women refused... as is
proved by the fact that it says, "And all the people
took off the gold rings that were in THEIR ears"
(ibid. 3), the women not participating in making the
calf. It was the same in the case of the spies who
uttered an evil report: "And the MEN... when they
returned, they caused the whole community to mutter
against him [Moshe]" (Bemidbar 14:36). The women,
however, were not with them in their plot, as may be
inferred from the fact that it is written... "For the
Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the
wilderness. There was not left a man of them save
Calev the son of Yefuneh" (Bemidbar 26:65). The text
speaks of 'a man' but not of 'a woman.' This was
because the men had been unwilling to enter the land.
The women (Tzelofchad's daughters), however, drew
near to ask for an inheritance in the land (see
Bemidbar 27:4)" (Bemidbar Rabba 21:10).
According to our Sages, the women did not take part in the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32) and in the sin of the scouts (Bemidbar 13-14). The righteousness of the dof Tzelofchad is one example of the general piety of the women of Israel.
II. Stumping Moshe
The question raised by the daughters of Tzelofchad is a good one. In fact, it is so good that it even
baffles Moshe. He is compelled to refer the question to the final arbiter: "Moshe brought their case before the Lord" (27:5).
Moshe' unfamiliarity with the laws of female land inheritance is surprising. It is a fairly basic component of the laws of inheritance. How could it be that this issue was unknown to Moshe?
The question of ' unfamiliarity with the law does not only relate to the episode of the daughters of Tzelofchad. There are three other instances recounted in the Torah in which Moshe is faced with a legal question for which he has no answer. The first two involve the perpetration of a sin for which Moshe does not know the consequent punishment. Torah recounts in relation to the blasphemer that:
"The Israelite's woman's son then blasphemed God's
name, and he was brought to Moshe ... and he was
placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord
should be made clear to them" (Vayikra 24:11,12).
Similarly, with regard to the desecrator of the Sabbath:
"While the Israelites were in the wilderness, they
discovered a man collecting wood on the Sabbath day.
Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought
him before Moshe ... He was placed in custody for it
had not been specified what should be done to him"
The third case relates to the Israelites who, due to their being ritually impure, could not partake of the
"There were, however, some men who had come in
contact with the dead, and were therefore ritually
unclean, so that they could not prepare the Passover
offering on that day. During the course of that day,
they approached Moshe and Aaron. 'We are ritually
unclean as a result of contact with the dead,' the
men said to [Moshe]. 'Why should we lose out and not
be able to present God's offering at its set time
with the rest of the Israelites?' Moshe said to
them, 'Stand by, and let me here what instructions
the Lord gives regarding your case'" (Bemidbar 9:6-
How could it be that Moshe was unfamiliar with such basic laws? One approach advanced by our Sages is to
limit the extent of Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law:
"Rabbi Shimon of Shikmona says: 'Moshe our master
knew that the daughters of Tzelofchad were to be
heiresses, but he did not know whether or not they
were to take the portion of the firstborn ... Moshe,
furthermore, knew that the man who gathered sticks
[on the Sabbath] was to be put to death ... but he
did not know by which [kind of] death he was to die"
(Bava Batra 119a).
Moshe knew that the daughters of Tzelofchad deserved to inherit their father's land; he simply didn't know how much of it they should inherit. He was unsure whether, according to law, they should inherit also their father's
additional rights as the firstborn. Similarly, with regard to the desecrator of the Sabbath. Moshe knew that the desecrator's punishment would be death. He did not know which form of death would be administered. Thus,
our Sages limit the extent of Moshe' doubts, thereby, mitigating our bewilderment at his unacquaintedness with the law.
However, this approach is not unanimous amongst our Sages:
"'He was placed in custody for it had not been specified what should be done to him' (Bemidbar 15:34) - This teaches us that Moshe knew that he
[the Sabbath desecrator] would receive the death penalty, but did not know which death penalty he would receive. Rabbi Eliezer b. Rabbi Shimon says,
'Moshe knew neither whether the desecrator deserved the death penalty nor how [if he did deserve the death penalty] he should be killed.'" (Sifrei Zuta,
We see that Rabbi Eliezer rejects the attempt to limit Moshe' doubt to a mere detail. Moshe did not even know if the desecrator deserved the death penalty. However, even if we accept the limiting view, we still find ourselves in a quandary. Limiting Moshe' doubts may diminish the problem, but it does not resolve it completely.
According to our Sages, all the commandments with their minute details were given at Mount Sinai:
"'The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai...' (Vayikra
25:1) - Why does Scripture relate regarding
'shemitta' (that it was commanded) at Mount Sinai?
Were not all the commandments given at Mount Sinai?
[The Torah states this to teach us that] just as the
general principles and the fine details of 'shemitta'
were conveyed at Mount Sinai, so were the general
principles and the fine details of all the
commandments conveyed at Mount Sinai" (Sifra, 25:1)
If this is the case, if God revealed to Moshe the commandments with all their details, then how are we to understand Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law? If we assume that Moshe heard all the minute details of each commandment then limiting the extent of Moshe' doubts does not help us. He should have been familiar with the details as well!
The Maharal, in his commentary to the section of the blasphemer, asks this very question:
"If, according to tradition the whole Torah, its
general principles, specific details and minutiae
were given at Mount Sinai, then how is it that Moshe
did not know the law [of the blasphemer]? It would
therefore seem that when we state that the whole
Torah, its general principles, specific details and
minutiae were given at Mount Sinai, it means that
Moshe was given the exegetic tools to infer the law
by comparing, generalizing or interpreting the text,
and any instance in which he was incapable of
understanding, then God would have to explicitly
reveal to him the law" (Gur Arieh, Leviticus 24:13).
The Maharal reinterprets the tradition that Moshe received the whole Torah to its finest details at Mount Sinai to refer to the capacity to infer the law from Scripture. According to this approach, every instance in which Moshe did not know the law is not due to forgetting, but rather, to his incapacity to infer it from the Scripture. Once again, this approach may alleviate the problem, but it does not resolve it completely. We must still understand why Moshe was occasionally incapable of inferring the law from the Torah?
In light of these irresolvable difficulties, our Sages advanced an alternative approach to Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law.
Some hold that the law was hidden from Moshe. There
are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power... Moshe had said, "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me"(Devarim 1:17). When the daughters of
Tzelofchad, however, came, He concealed the law from him. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, "Did you not say, 'The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me.' The law with which you are acquainted is decided by the women!" (Bemidbar Rabba 21:12)
Moshe' unfamiliarity with the law is a punishment! God purposefully concealed the law from Moshe to teach him his limitations and to remind him of the source of all his wisdom. Moshe sinned when stating, after
selecting the judges of Israel, "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it" (Devarim 1:17). Moshe evinces a certain haughtiness in addressing the judges. He highlights his superiority and gives the impression that he is the 'seat of wisdom,' when, in fact, God is. Moshe should have said "The case that is too difficult for you bring to GOD." The
punishment for intellectual haughtiness is ignorance. God conceals the law from Moshe in order to humble him; the daughters of Tzelofchad know that which you don't!
The approach which views Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law as a punishment for haughtiness is disputed by the Sages:
"Rabbi Nachman son of Rabbi Yitzchak objected: 'Is it
written 'And I will answer it?' It is written 'And I
will hear it'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin
Rabbi Nachman points out that Moshe states "The case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will HEAR it." Implicit in Moshe' words is the acknowthat he must hear the answer from God. It is therefore incorrect to ascribe to Moshe any conceit. The Talmud then advances a totally different approach:
"In truth, the passage of the laws of inheritance
should have been written through Moshe our teacher,
but since the daughters of Tzelofchad were
meritorious, it was written through them. [Similarly
the passage] of the gatherer of wood [who desecrated
the Sabbath] should have been written through Moshe
our teacher but since the wood gatherer was guilty,
it was written through him, to teach you that harm is
imparted through one who is guilty and benefit
through one who is meritorious" (Sanhedrin 8a).
Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law is not a punishment. In fact, it has nothing to do with Moshe. Originally, Moshe was supposed to teach all the
commandments. However, circumstances led to the teaching of certain commandments in response to events which occurred in the Israelite camp. These circumstances were of a dual and opposing nature. Occasionally, sins were perpetrated which called for immediate retribution. On
other occasions, positive and commendable initiatives led to the revelation of commandments. God could have revealed all the commandments directly to Moshe; however, He preferred withholding some commandments and revealing them in response to historical events. This principle is formulated in the Talmud as: "Harm is imparted through
one who is guilty and benefit through one who is
meritorious." Certain sinners brought about the
revelation of the punishments for their sins. God
revealed the punishment for the desecration of the
Sabbath (Bemidbar 15:35), and, we may add, for blasphemy (Vayikra 24:15ff), in response to the perpetration of these sins. Similarly, God revealed the laws of female inheritance (Bemidbar 27:8) and the laws of the 'second
Passover' (Bemidbar 9:9) in response to claims raised by the Israelites.
This principle, "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious," may be understood in several ways. One possible
understanding is that God preferred to reveal
commandments in response to actual events due to
pedagogical considerations. The Torah is not simply a law book listing edicts. It includes large narrative portions. The Torah attaches great value to 'the story.' In fact, the appreciation of the value of stories is a fairly universal phenomenon. The power of the story is in its capacity to rouse the listener and to leave a lasting impression on him. From an educational
perspective, it is preferable to teach commandments through a narrative. While this was not always possible, when such an opportunity arose, the Torah preferred to convey commandments in conjunction with the relevant narratives. We are far more likely to remember the severity of the sin of blasphemy after reading about the punishment of one who is guilty of such a sin than by just reading a theoretical formulation of the punishment.
A second, and perhaps simpler understanding of the principle "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit through one who is meritorious," is that God wished to further punish the sinners and praise the righteous. Thus, God revealed the punishments for the sins of blasphemy and the desecration of the Sabbath
conjointly with the perpetration of these sins thereby
further denigrating the sinners. Similarly, with regard to the righteous daughters of Tzelofchad and the
Israelites who were concerned about missing the Passover sacrifice; God wished to reward them for their
righteousness and therefore revealed commandments
conjointly with their commendable behavior eternally binding them to their respective commandments.
The two cases of the sinners, the blasphemer and the desecrator of the Sabbath, are similar; both instances involve a rebellion against God, placement of the sinner in custody until his punishment is clarified, and
subsequent dispensing of justice.
What about the other two cases, the daughters of Tzelofchad and the second Passover (Bemidbar 9:6-8)? Are there any similarities between these two episodes? Do
they have a common denominator which may help explain why, in these two instances, laws were not revealed directly through Moshe but rather as a consequence of questions raised by Israelites? Let us compare the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad to that advanced by the Israelites who were ritually unclean and could not take part in the Passover offering.
The daughters of Tzelofchad ask: "Why should our father's name be LOST to his clan" (27:4).
The ritually unclean Israelites ask: ""Why should we LOSE out and not be able to present God's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" ((Bemidbar 9:7)
Both claims contain the Hebrew root "garra," translated "lost." Although the claims belong to totally different domains, land inheritance as opposed to
sacrificial worship, both share a common attitude towards commandments and towards the worship of God. In both instances, the parties involved do not want to lose out on an opportunity. The daughters of Tzelofchad do not want their father's name to be forgotten and therefore request to receive an inheritance which would preserve their father's name. Similarly, the ritually impure
Israelites did not want to forego the Passover sacrifice. Both parties faced a predicament in which, according to the existing known laws, involved a loss of an
opportunity. In both instances, the parties did not resign themselves to their unfortunate fate, but decided to raise their plight with Moshe. The daughters of Tzelofchad longed for the land of Israel and desired to preserve their father's name amongst the rest of the Israelite families. The ritually impure Israelites
longed to perform the Passover sacrifice and worship God with the rest of Israel. Passion and commitment are the common denominator of the two cases and the reason for the unique status attributed to each of the parties.
So far, we have seen three approaches to grappling with Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law. The first limited the extent of Moshe' unacquaintedness with the law, the second viewed it as a punishment for
intellectual arrogance, and the third explained Moshe' unfamiliarity with the law on the bases of the principle, "Harm is imparted through one who is guilty and benefit
through one who is meritorious." We will conclude with the explanation our Sages in the Midrash Hagadol (14th century Yemenite collection of derush compiled by R. David Ha-Adeni):
"'Moshe brought their case before the Lord' (Bemidbar
27:5). Moshe said, 'All future generations will learn
from my seeking advice from a superior.' If Moshe,
about whom God testified 'he is the trusted one in
all my house' (Bemidbar 12:7), did not judge the case
of the daughters of Tzelofchad without seeking advice
from God, all the more so should no man speak [i.e.,
pass judgment] before one who is wiser than he ...
but should seek the opinion of those who are
In direct opposition to the opinion which viewed Moshe' unfamiliarity with the law as a punishment for arrogance, the Midrash Hagadol views it as a paradigm of humility. Moshe knew the law in the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad. He nevertheless opted to seek advice from God before passing judgment, thereby teaching the generations humility in passing judgment.
What prompts Moshe to give us a lesson in humility specifically in relation to the claim of the daughters of Tzelofchad? I would like to propose that the answer to this question lies in the section immediately following the episode of the daughters of Tzelofchad. After God reveals the laws of inheritance, He informs Moshe of his impending death: "The Lord said to Moshe, 'Ascend the heightsof Avarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you, too, shall be gathered to your kin'" (27:12,13). Moshe is approaching the end of his days. Soon, Yehoshua will replace him as leader (ibid. 18). A primary concern of Moshe is the future well-being and leadership of Israel. Even as he prepares the natfor the future division of the land of Israel amongst the tribes and families, he wishes to demonstrate to them how to grapple with future queries. The people have grown accustomed to asking Moshe for guidance. How will the nation conduct itself once Moshe is no longer? Will it continue to seek guidance from its spiritual leaders? Moshe wished to impress upon the people that they should continue to look to their men of vision for instruction. Moshe himself is not self-sufficient; he seeks the advice of God. Future leaders must emulate this and always look for divine guidance. The nation, in turn, must also continue seeking the word of God from its future prophets and leaders.
III. The Verdict
"Moshe brought their case before the Lord. And the
Lord said to Moshe, "The plea of Tzelofchad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding amongst their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them" (27:5-7).
Tzelofchad's daughters' claim is correct. They will inherit their father's share of the land and perpetuate their father's name. Ironically, in attempting to insure that their FATHER'S name would not be forgotten, they themselves earned eternal fame and a place in the book of books.
********************************************************* MAY HA-KADOSH BARUKH HU HAVE MERCY ON HIS PEOPLE AND ON HIS LAND. *********************************************************
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