It was taught [in a baraita]: The daughters of Zelophchad were wise; they were astute expounders [of Torah]; they were righteous.
“They were wise”—Because they spoke at the right moment, as Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak said, “This teaches that Moses our rabbi was sitting and expounding the passage [concerning the laws of] yibbum (levirate marriage), as it says, When brothers dwell together (Deuteronomy 25:5). They (the daughters) said to him, ‘If we are considered equal to a son, give us a son’s inheritance; if not, let our mother undergo yibbum.’ Immediately, Moses brought their case before Adonai (Numbers 27:5).”
“They were astute expounders [of Torah]”—Because they said [to Moses], “If [our father] had had a son, we would not have spoken.” But it was taught [in a baraita]: “a daughter.” R. Yirmiyah said, “Delete ‘daughter’ from here.” Abaye said, “Even had he had a daughter of a son, we would not have spoken.”
“They were righteous”—Because they married only [men] worthy of them. R. Eliezer b. Yaakov taught [in a baraita]: Even the youngest of them did not marry before the age of forty.
Torah describes how, while still in the Wilderness, the Land of Israel was apportioned to the tribes, and within each tribe, to its clans. Marriage, at this time, was less about romance than about producing male heirs to inherit the patrimony and, in turn, pass it on to the next generation, keeping it within the clan if possible, and certainly within the tribe.
Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah, the remarkable and memorable daughters of Zelophchad, are a source of continuing fascination for students of Torah. Numbers chapter 27 recounts that after Zelophchad died leaving five daughters but no sons, his daughters, in an early instance of leaning in, approached Moses and said, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” Moses brought their case before Adonai. Adonai said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophchad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen: transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6–7) God ruled in favor of the sisters and, in the next verse, promulgated the order of inheritance: first sons, then daughters, next brothers, followed by paternal uncles.
The institution of levirate marriage (yibbum) is related to concerns about inheritance. Usually a man may not marry his brother’s wife (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), but as Deuteronomy 25:5–6 explains, if a man dies without a male heir to inherit his property and carry on his name, his brother is obligated to marry the widow (yibbum) in the hope of producing a male child who will legally be the son of the deceased brother and inherit his land, thereby preserving his “name.” (Should the brother of the deceased refuse to marry his brother’s widow, the ceremony of chalitzah releases him by imposing public humiliation on him—see Deuteronomy 25:7–10.) Levirate marriage figures into the stories of Tamar and Judah, Ruth and Boaz, and possibly Lot’s daughters.
The Rabbis attribute to Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah—the daughters of Zelophchad—three admirable attributes, each of which is explained by expanding their story as found in the Torah. Evidence of each trait is, in turn, explained.
The first requires the most attention. Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak says that the sisters understood that their case could be won by a legal argument based on yibbum as follows: Deuteronomy 25:5 reads, When brother dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son… but this could also be read “leaves no child,” which is how Moses taught it. The sisters therefore point out that if Moses taught that yibbum only applies when there are neither sons nor daughters, then a daughter counts as a son for the purposes of yibbum when there is no son (they exempt their mother from having to undergo yibbum), and should therefore inherit from their father when there is no son. The sisters’ wisdom was in waiting to bring their case when Moses was teaching precisely this law so he would be primed to recognize its legitimacy.
They are astute expositors of Torah because they know that a son precedes a daughter in claiming an inheritance, even though the law has not yet been give—God teaches it after they bring their case (v. 25). Abaye says the proof that they were astute expositors of Torah is found in their ability to deduce that the daughter of a son (a niece) has priority over a daughter in inheritance.
Finally, they are considered righteous, which is demonstrated by a baraita that tells us that each waited many years to marry in order to find appropriate mates. The Gemara continues to discuss this, going to so far as to say that while usually women who marry at 40 cannot bear children, God wrought a miracle for the sisters.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- What do you think the purpose of the institution of yibbum is? Who does it benefit or protect?
- Are you surprised that the rabbis ascribe to the sisters traits and abilities usually ascribed by the Rabbis only to men—particularly wisdom and expounding Torah? Why do you think they do this?
- What three attributes would you ascribe to your partner or child(ren)? What attributes do you consider the highest?