"The laws of inheritance would have been written in the Torah through Moses even if the daughters of Zlafchad had not presented their petition, but since the daughters of Zlafchad were meritorious they were written through their agency... The proper punishment of one who desecrates the Shabbat, such as the Mekoshesh, would have been written in the Torah by Moses even if such an incident had never occurred, but since the Mekoshesh was guilty it was written through him - to teach you that benefit is awarded through the meritorious and harm through the guilty." (Baba Batra 119a)


[The incident of the Mekoshesh is described in (Bamidbar 15:32-36). The Talmud (Shabbat 69b) debates which particular desecration of the Shabbat laws was involved. According to the Talmud, Moses knew that the desecrator was liable to the death penalty but he did not know which one. God informed him that he should be stoned. Thus the exact penalty for the desecration of the Shabbat was written in the Torah as a consequence of the transgression of the Mekoshesh.]


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The connection between the daughters of Zlafchad and the Mekoshesh has deeper roots. Rabbi Akiva taught that the Mekoshesh was none other than Zlafchad himself (Sifri, Bamidbar, 15,32). Thus Zlafchad and his daughters were both responsible for laws being written in the Torah as a result of their activities. His daughters are described as having merited the honor, while Zlafchad is chastised for having brought it about through his guilt.

Nevertheless the family connection and distinction is glaringly obvious. The statement made regarding Zlafchad and his daughters - that something would have become Torah through Moses but was written down instead as a response to the activities of another - is rare indeed. There is no such statement about anyone else in any connection as far as the author knows. Zlafchad and his daughters share the distinction of being singled out from the rest of humanity as the only people in history who preempted Moses from serving as the human agent to deliver Torah law to the world. This unique connection between Zlafchad and his daughters is surely more than mere coincidence.


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But there is another curious aspect to the tale of Zlafchad and his daughters. Zlafchad's daughters seem to have been prompted to present their petition to inherit on the simple grounds of self-interest. By all appearances, they simply wanted to become major landowners. Yet they are described as meritorious. On the other hand their father, Zlafchad, who seems to have been motivated by the highest ideals of self-sacrifice is referred to as guilty.

Tosefoth (ibid., 119b) quotes a Midrash that focuses on Zlafchad's motivations: according to the Midrash, Zlafchad had the noblest of intentions in deciding to violate the Shabbat. His sin was committed in close proximity to the death sentence issued against the Exodus generation following the sin of the spies. Many members of this condemned generation felt that since they were destined to wander in the desert for the rest of their lives, denied entry into the land of Israel as they had been promised, they were no longer obligated to observe Torah law. Zlafchad, himself one of the condemned, decided to demonstrate that his generation was still fully obligated to the strictures of Torah law, despite the verdict of death and exile that hung over them, by committing a capital offence and suffering immediate execution for his violation.

In light of these facts it is legitimate to wonder why Zlafchad, who was clearly deserving of great merit for his act of self-sacrifice, is referred to as 'guilty,' whereas his daughters, who apparently acted out of simple self-interest, are described as meritorious. Shouldn't it be the opposite way around?


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Marriage provides the key to understanding the true character and motivation of Zlafchad's daughters. The Talmud (ibid.) informs us that all five of Zlafchad's daughters were well over forty when they married and they all bore children miraculously. Why miraculously? Talmudic tradition has it that a woman who experiences intercourse for the first time only in her forties will not be able to bear children by natural means.

But the Talmud doesn't explain why none of them married at a younger age. Tosefoth throws us a hint (ibid. 119b): Zlafchad was the Mekoshesh, and he was killed in the second year of the desert sojourn as explained above. The laws of inheritance were given as a response to the petition of Zlafchad's daughters, and they only presented their case in the fortieth year of the desert sojourn. Therefore, concludes Tosefoth, the daughters could not marry for thirty-eight years following their father's death, as the question of his estate remained unsettled; consequently by the time they married they were all over forty.

However, this explanation leaves us almost as bewildered as before it was presented, for Tosefoth does not explain to us why it was so crucial to postpone matrimony until the final settlement of Zlafchad's estate. Why couldn't the daughters settle the inheritance problem following their marriages?


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We shall attempt to supply the missing piece. Zlafchad's daughters, who were also described as wise, immediately grasped the problematic implications of female inheritance within a tribally based system of land division. Their farsightedness is confirmed by the story outlined in Ch. 36 at the end of Bamidbar. Following the acceptance of their claim to inherit, the heads of the tribe of Menashe petitioned Moses to restrict their right to marry out of the tribe.

According to the Torah's laws of inheritance, when a wife dies, her husband or her children inherit her property. Zlafchad's daughters were born into the tribe of Menashe, and as they were awarded their father's share, they were ultimately in possession of a fair portion of the tribal estate. Had they chosen to marry men who belonged to other tribes, upon their deaths the tribal land of Menasheh in their possession would have become the property of another tribe. For even if their own children inherited, their land would be automatically transferred to a different tribe since children are designated members of their father's tribe under Jewish law.


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Foreseeing this problem, they chose to put off marriage. They did not wish to jeopardize the success of their petition to inherit by marrying out of their own tribe, and they obviously had no interest in marrying anyone within it. This obvious lack of romantic interest in the male members of their own tribe provides the Talmud with evidence of their righteousness.

The Talmud tells us that in the case of Zlafchad's daughters, the petition of the elders of Menashe failed. All other females who claimed inheritance of their father's tribal share in that generation were compelled to agree to marry within their tribes as a condition of receiving their inheritance, but Zlafchad's daughters were specifically absolved from this requirement. The Divine message to them was that they were free to marry whomever they liked; God considered it advisable for them to choose husbands from Menasheh, but He was specifically not ordering them to do so. They demonstrated their righteousness by unanimously following God's advice and foregoing their own romantic inclinations.

But we aren't there yet. There must be greater depth to the story. So far it is only about land, and as such it still doesn't make any sense. For let us even assume that the daughters of Zlafchad were not the superior women the Talmud describes but simply normal human beings. Is it reasonable to suppose that all five of them would voluntarily surrender the prospect of marrying, leading normal lives, mothering children, for the sake of perhaps acquiring their father's estate after a forty year wait, when the Jewish people finally entered the Promised Land? It seems hardly likely. What made them decide to dedicate their lives to the acquisition of their father's estate?


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To understand their thinking we must delve into the spiritual significance of obtaining a share in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Dessler explains that the laws of inheritance in general are laid out to follow spiritual realities. Everyone is sent to the world with something to accomplish. Inasmuch as parents and children are linked spiritually as well as physically, as a general rule, spiritual tasks are family oriented. Children inherit their spiritual potential from their parents, and generally speaking the tasks that were assigned to the fathers also fit the sons. The reason that we are speaking of sons is that there is a distinction between males and females, an issue that we shall deal with later.

Continues Rabbi Dessler: The assignment of property by Divine Providence is related to a person's spiritual mission in the world. If I am assigned a task, I must be given the means to accomplish it and one of these means is property. Inasmuch as fathers and sons are assigned similar tasks, and as the property of the father is a function of his task, sons inherit their father's property.

This rule applies to inheritance in general; it applies particularly to the division of the Land of Israel among the tribes. The people of Israel were divided into twelve distinct tribes because the overall spiritual mission of the Jewish nation is broken down into component parts. Each tribe does its part and between them all, the Kingdom of God is established. Thus Judah rules, Levi mediates between God and Israel, Issachar is the Torah expert and Joseph is the repository of the nation's economic might, etc.


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The hand of Divine agency was emphatically in evidence during every stage of the process of the division of the Land. The twelve portions were drawn up with the help of the Urim Vetumim under the inspiration of Ruach Hakodesh, or the Holy Spirit. They were put into a box and the names of the twelve tribes were placed in a second box. The heads of the tribes each drew two lots, one from the box of names and a second one from the box containing the shares. Miraculously, each of the tribal chieftains managed to pick the name of his own particular tribe out of the box of names. To reinforce the miracle, as the tribal heads drew the lot from the box containing the shares, the lots themselves declared in a loud voice, "I am the share with the following borders and I was intended for such and such a tribe" (Baba Batra, 122a).

In spiritual terms the miracle has the following interpretation. Each tribe was assigned the portion of land it required to fulfill its unique mission in the overall context of the Jewish people in the most productive fashion. This interpretation is reinforced by a consideration of the manner in which the internal division process within the tribes was arranged.

One opinion in the Talmud maintains that the land was subdivided among the members of the Exodus generation and passed down by them from their graves to their children who entered Israel in conformity with the ordinary rules of inheritance. According to the second opinion, the land was first subdivided among those who entered Israel, who then passed it back to the members of the Exodus generation, who passed it back once again to be redistributed this time according to the laws of inheritance (ibid., 117a).


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According to both opinions, the Exodus generation played a dominant role in the process of internal tribal distribution of the land despite the fact that this generation had died out long before the division took place. The reason, as Rabbi Dessler pointed out, is that the determination of inheritance is primarily spiritual, and the spiritual heritage of each tribe was defined by the potential of its members who experienced the Exodus.

As we recite in the Passover Haggada annually, we are all to consider ourselves as having been redeemed personally from Egyptian bondage no matter how historically remote the Exodus may be. The entire people of Israel, through all the generations, is to be regarded as chosen by God through the redemption. Another way of putting this is to say that the people who actually experienced the Exodus contained the spiritual seeds of all subsequent generations. This Exodus generation is a microcosm of the people of Israel for all time. Inasmuch as the share in the land of Israel assigned to each tribe was the physical envelope in which the spiritual power of each tribe was packaged, it is obvious that the Exodus generation, the source of this spiritual potential, must necessarily play a major role in the land's distribution.


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Let us now return to the question that was left hanging, the different roles played by males and females in the context of inheritance. While all children inherit the spiritual potential of both their parents, it is the sons who inherit the tasks based on this spiritual heritage, not the daughters. Almost everyone is familiar with the Talmudic pronouncement; Forty days before a person is born an announcement is made, "The daughter of X is set aside for Y."(Sotah, 2a) The role of the Jewish woman is described at the time of creation of Eve or Chava, as a helper corresponding to him. No one is capable of carrying out his task in this world without spiritual help and emotional support. We all need a combination of skills and strengths in order to accomplish the spiritual tasks we were assigned.

Each tribe has its own spiritual strength and potential as explained above. What if the member of one tribe requires the input of skills and potentials that inhere to another tribe to successfully complete his task? How is it possible to add spiritual strength and complexity to the human character once it is formed? The answer: through marriage. Our spiritually deficient tribal member can take himself a wife from the tribe that has the spiritual potential that he is missing. The 'helper' the Torah refers in the creation of woman does not connote physical assistance. It is the spiritual strength in the female that corresponds and complements the potential in the male that the Torah is talking about. Only as a bonded pair do a man and a woman have the necessary spiritual powers to accomplish their joint spiritual task.


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As a small illustration to help us bring this down to earth, let us consult the story of Rabbi Akiva and his wife, Rachel. Rabbi Akiva was an unlearned shepherd of good character who worked for Kalba Sevua, one of the wealthiest Jews alive and a great supporter of Torah. Rachel, his daughter, recognized the potential greatness in Rabbi Akiva and she married him on condition that he agreed to devote himself to the study of Torah. Her father disinherited her for marrying beneath her, but she stubbornly supported Rabbi Akiva through his studies in utter poverty for twenty-four years. He did indeed become a great Torah scholar thanks to her.

In terms of our discussion, Rabbi Akiva had the intelligence and the power of concentration required to become a great scholar. He lacked the burning desire and the confidence in ultimate success required to endure the long process of study. Kalba Sevua's daughter inherited the traits of ambition, self-confidence and stubbornness. By blending their spiritual strengths, they managed to produce the greatest Torah scholar who ever lived between them. In terms of our essay, we can posit that he was from the tribe of Issaschar, the repository of Torah wisdom, while she was from the tribe of Zebulun, the great supporters of Torah. Rabbi Akiva recognized and acknowledged Rachel's share in his achievements. Indeed, he declared to his students, "Your Torah and mine both belong to her." (Ketubot 63a)

The rule in Judaism is that the tribal classification of a child is determined by the tribal membership of the father's family. (Baba Batra, 109b) Thus, according to the theory presented by Rabbi Dessler earlier, the spiritual task of a Jewish couple is always a function of the husband's tribe, not the wife's. The laws of inheritance serve as faithful markers that point directly to the sources of spiritual tasks. Inasmuch as property is inherited according to the assignment of such tasks, and it is the sons who inherit their father's property rather than the daughters, it is clear that it is they who take over the father's spiritual tasks.

Daughters inherit the spiritual potential of their father's tribe, but they add their spiritual strength to their husbands' so that their potential is employed in actualizing the task that is set by the orientation of the husband's father's tribe.


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Let us study Zlafchad's situation once again in the light of all this input. Zlafchad was a member of the Exodus generation who had no sons, only daughters. He was a repository of part of the spiritual potential contained in the Tribe of Menashe. As we have seen, he was not just another member of the tribe but an extraordinary person, capable of enormous self-sacrifice. For not only did Zlafchad sacrifice his life to sanctify God's name and save the Jewish people from the tragic mistake of thinking that they were no longer obligated to observe Torah laws following the issuance of their death sentence, he arranged to do so in a way that concealed the nobility of his act entirely; he himself appeared to be a sinner, and would be thus regarded till the end of time by everyone who read the story of the Mekoshesh. To accept being labeled as a sinner through eternity in order to sanctify God's name is surely the most selfless self-sacrifice that a human being is capable of.

If Zlafchad did not inherit a portion in the land, the great spiritual power he possessed would have no physical envelope and Zlafchad's potential contribution to his tribe would be lost. His daughters, who inherited his great spiritual powers, would add their strength to complement members of other tribes who required the input of such overwhelming spiritual strength, but as part of the tribe of Menashe, where it could serve as a source of spiritual tasks, Zlafchad's potential would be lost.


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Following in their father's footsteps, Zlafchad's daughters determined to bring a selfless self-sacrifice of their own. As long as they did not marry, they were a part of no family other than their father's. Rather than marry and become members of their husbands' families, they preferred to wait patiently to claim their father's inheritance. If their father could obtain his share in the land of Israel through their efforts, his spiritual potential would be joined to a portion of the holy land, which would be duly distributed to those who were assigned to carry on Zlafchad's own spiritual mission, an integral portion of the legacy of his ancestral tribe, Menasheh.

Their decision was fraught with many risks; they risked being turned down altogether; they risked missing out on a normal life as wives and mothers; they risked being misjudged as merely grasping and greedy, troubled women who preferred to live as sterile old maids in order to have a chance at independent wealth. In their own way, they duplicated Zlafchad's own act of self-sacrifice. They were truly chips off the old block.

They patiently waited forty years for the question of inheritance to come up. When they heard God's word: "To these shall the land be divided as an inheritance according to the number of names" (Bamidbar 26:53) following the count of the Jewish people described in Ch. 26, they figured it was now or never and approached Moses.


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The Talmud portrays the scene. Moses was teaching the laws of levirate marriage to a gathering that included all the leading figures in the Jewish camp. He was teaching the people that when a man dies childless, his brother is obligated to marry his widow and attempt to bear children so as to preserve the dead man's name, his spiritual legacy in Israel. They asked permission to speak and argued that either they themselves counted as children or their mother should enter a levirate marriage. If they were indeed considered children, then they were the continuance of their father's name and the people who embodied his legacy and as such, they should be entitled to inherit his property.

As their self-sacrifice embodied the most ideal expression of the Torah attitude to the inheritance of property, God took the opportunity to publicly acknowledge their devotion by agreeing with them, and presenting all the laws of inheritance against the dramatic background of their story.


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But there is more to this than meets the eye. As stated earlier, the daughters of Zlafchad were specifically excluded from the rule that was applied to other females who inherited at the end of Ch. 36. While other females were restricted in their freedom to marry out of their tribes, the daughters of Zlafchad were at liberty to marry anyone they pleased.

If we trace property once again as a method of identifying the sources of spiritual tasks, this says something extraordinary about Zlafchad's daughters. Such was their spiritual greatness that in their case the rule that only the father's family presented the background for the assignment of spiritual tasks, the reason for the prohibition to marry out of the tribe, was entirely suspended. While other women who inherited would be forced to remain within their tribes so that tribal property could be devoted to the ends and tasks for which it was intended, Zlafchad's daughters were absolved from this requirement. The immensity of their spiritual greatness would necessarily overwhelm anyone they married, and in their case, the children's spiritual tasks would be determined by the mother's family. They were not spiritual complements. The daughters of Zlafchad were their own spiritual archetypes, who passed their own spiritual tasks down to their children.


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Such was their determination to preserve their father's spiritual legacy in Israel that they could not help but pass it down to their own children. No matter what happened to Zlafchad's physical portion, his spiritual legacy was eternally safeguarded by the loyalty and dedication of his daughters.

The Torah goes out of its way to mention them by name no less than three times. They are listed both in order of chronological age and in the order of their spiritual greatness. No comparable tribute is paid to any male members of any family in Israel.

We, the Jewish people of today, could certainly benefit from a strong infusion of their spiritual strength. We, who are busy burning our spiritual legacy on the bonfire of modern culture, would be well advised to model ourselves a little after Jews who dedicated their lives to rescuing their father's spiritual heritage and disregarding the physical world except insofar as it served as a vehicle for the preservation of his great legacy. We certainly have a lot to learn from Zlafchad's daughters.