The Five Sisters

by Maxine Zeltser

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I would like to dedicate this talk to the memory of my dear parents, Yitzchak Yaacov ben Shraga and Devorah bat Mordechai and, also, to the memory of my dear father-in-law, Baruch ben Aharon whose tenth yarzheit is in July.

The climax of Megillat Ruth is when Boaz takes Ruth, the widow of Machlon, as his wife ‘ to perpetuate the name of the deceased on his inheritance.’

The theme of inheritance is prominent throughout chumash. Disputes about inheritance can have catastrophic consequences, just look at Yaacov and Esav. Even today, the level of inheritance tax and whether social care costs should be paid out of one’s estate are hot political issues.

 I would like to focus, today, on the incident in parshat Pinchas where five sisters brought their claim to inherit a portion in Eretz Yisrael before Moshe. At the time, it must have been extremely unusual for a woman to raise such an issue and would have required much courage and conviction. So, who were these sisters and what inspired them to persist in their claim?

The sisters were called Machla, Chagla, Noah, Milka and Tirtza. All five were righteous, intelligent and learned. At the time of Aharon’s death, when these events occurred, they were almost forty years old and unmarried, as they could not find worthy spouses. Their father, Tzelafchad, had passed away in the wilderness without leaving any male heirs. He was a descendant of Machir which was a family of the tribe of Menashe.

When they learnt that Eretz Yisrael was to be distributed according to the number of males, they were concerned that their father’s name would be forgotten. The tribe of Menashe was one of the tribes that had asked for permission to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan. This land was to be distributed through Moshe personally and not by divine lot and so they knew that it would not be difficult for them to obtain territory on that side. However, they loved Eretz Yisrael. They wanted a share in Eretz Yisrael proper and decided to claim this as their entitlement.

Before a claim would have been heard by Moshe, it needed to go before the judges appointed over every ten people; then to the judges over fifty people; then to the judges over a hundred people and then to the judges over a thousand. Only if none of these judges felt competent to decide the matter, would it be brought before Moshe himself. That they continued with their claim through all these stages shows their incredible persistence and determination.

The Midrash explains that although the sisters were reluctant to appear in public, they overcame their natural modesty because their question was of fundamental importance.

They argued that their father passed away in the wilderness and not in Egypt and thus was entitled to a portion in Eretz Yisrael. He was not among the Complainers or part of Korach’s evil congregation who all forfeited their shares in the Land. They stated that their father did not induce others to sin but rather died because of his own sin. Some sources state that Tzelafchad was the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat whilst others believe that he was among those who attempted to enter Eretz Yisrael without permission.

The sisters argued that their father’s name should not be forgotten because he left no son. Moshe, at first, denied their claim but then deferred  the issue to Hashem. Hashem replied that the daughters of Tzelafchad were correct and should receive a double portion to reflect the fact that their father was a first born. Hashem then commanded Moshe to teach Bnei Yisrael the laws of inheritance. These included a provision that daughters can inherit if there are no sons.

The Midrash explains that Hashem told Moshe to advise the sisters to take husbands from their own tribe and eventually they all found worthy husbands and had children. Hashem performed a miracle to allow these righteous women to have children despite their age.

The Midrash describes the five sisters as tzidkaniot which means virtuous and pious women. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his commentary ‘Torah Lights’ queries why the sisters were described in this way? Surely it would be more appropriate to refer to them as persevering, courageous and aggressive.

Not only did the sisters have to take their case through the numerous tiers of appeals but they would also have had to ignore the endless chorus of discouraging voices arguing that their cause would be doomed to failure. The disastrous mission of the spies had already taken place which resulted in the entire generation being told that they would die in the desert. Korach’s rebellion had just occurred and this would have filled the nation with disappointment and despair. There would have been great uncertainty as to whether any Israelite would ever enter the Promised Land.  The sisters’, however, ignored the doubters and the doom-mongers. They were prepared to fight on behalf of their children and grandchildren because they had an unshakeable faith in Hashem’s promise that the nation would enter the Promised Land. It is because of the steadfastness of their faith that they merited the description of being virtuous and pious.

 As a direct result of the sisters’ persistence, Hashem conveyed all of the laws of Inheritance to Moses and Israel. As Rabbi Riskin points out, ‘women’s inheritance rights developed from this case to such an extent that if a father bequeaths only a small amount of property, the daughters’ sustenance and dowries must be provided for – even if nothing will be left over for the sons.’  He goes on to point out that it can be said that the daughters of Tzelafchad were pioneers in arguing the case for women’s rights under biblical law. ‘They won the first bona fide example of feminist legislation ‘on the books’. 

What I think is most poignant is that their prime motivation was their love for the Land of Israel and that they had an overwhelming desire to ensure that their descendants should inherit a share in the Promised Land. In a week when we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the re-unification of Jerusalem, I think their faith and perseverence in pursuing their dreams and their continued love for the Land of Israel, regardless of the odds, are great examples for us to follow.

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