Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Parshat Pinchas

Zelafchad's Daughters and Feminism

The daughters of Zelafchad had a simple request: "Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son?" (Bemidbar 27:4).

At that time, land could only be inherited by sons. As Zelofchad had no sons, his family would receive no land and thereby, his name would be lost from Israelite history. This loss dismayed his daughters.

So a new law was enacted: "If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (ibid 8).

At first glance, this law appears to strike a first blow for Jewish feminism – women, in limited circumstances, could now become landowners.

The reality however, is somewhat different. The purpose of this law was not to give women land, but rather, to keep the family name alive. Indeed, an addition to this law clearly states that the women had to marry within their tribe so that "their inheritance remained with the tribe of their father's family" (ibid 36:12).

The daughters essentially acted as guardians of the land until a male child was born that could carry on the family name.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society because it was a community of tribes, rather than a unified nation. Each tribe was concerned about its land mass. That is why the tribe of Menasheh complained to Moshe about this ruling. They were very concerned that should Zelofchad's daughters marry outside of their tribe, the whole tribe would have a weakening of their power as the land would be transferred over to another tribe. Therefore, a new rule was instituted that "every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe" (ibid 8). Female land owners could only marry within their tribe.

Therefore, in a tribal society, there had to be strict rules about landownership regulations for women.

However, once Israel ceased its tribalism and became a unified nation, the rabbis were able to show more compassion and find ways to boost inheritance rights of women.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Pinchas, entitled: "Moshe and Yehoshua” appears at

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