The Daughters of Tzelofhad and Moshe’s Hesitancy

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley





The episode of the daughters of Tzelofhad approaching Moshe Rabbeinu and the subsequent Divine intervention to ensure their rights as inheritors has attracted the attention of many of the commentators and modern writers.  Many view the daughters as the Torah’s early prototype of observant feminists, trying to expand their role and rights within the guidelines of the Torah.  This week, we will refrain from analyzing the nature of their request and their motivations, and concentrate instead on an aspect that is often given less attention – Moshe Rabbeinu’s surprising need to turn to Hashem for assistance.  Was their request so difficult that Moshe did not know the correct halakha?  We will turn to three traditional sources that expand on the Torah’s text, and analyze how they differ in their understanding of why Moshe acted in the way he did.


Let us first look at how the Midrash understood this episode:


Bamidbar Rabbah 21:12:

It states: "And Moshe brought their cause before Hashem."  Yesh Omrim (state) that it was beyond Moshe's comprehension.  ("MAHARZO": That Hashem hid from him the law for the daughters of Tzelofhad), that there are righteous men who became proud because of a commandment and Hashem Himself weakened their strength. 

You find that David stated (Tehillim 119:54) "Your statutes were music to me," that is to say as easy and regular as music.  Hashem said to him: "Your life, your end will be to err by something that little children read about!" When he raised up the ark he erred and put it on the cart, as it states (Shmuel II 6:3) "And they set the ark of Hashem upon a new cart." The ark itself was hung in the air and the oxen slipped out from underneath it.  Uzza approached to steady it (ibid.  6:7) as it is stated: "And Hashem smote him there for his error," because the error of a scholar is considered intentional.  "And David was displeased, because Hashem had burst out against Uzza (ibid.  6:8).  Hashem said to him: "Did you not say your statutes were music to me?! Did you not learn (Bamidbar 7:9) "But to the sons of Kehat he gave none; because the service of the sanctuary was imposed on them, to bear [the burden] on their shoulder" He (David) began to marvel (Chronicles I 16:13) "Hashem our Hashem made a breach upon us, because we did not seek him according to the prescribed form."

So too with Moshe.  Because he said (Devarim 1:17) "And the cause that is too hard for you, bring it to me and I will hear it" - Hashem weakened his strength.  A parable:  A moneychanger told his student: "If they bring you coins to change, change them but if they bring you pearls bring them to me."  One chain of glass pieces was brought to him ("Mathnat Kehuna": that the children play with because it is not worth anything).  He brought it to his teacher.  His teacher went to show it to another [expert – exposing the teacher to ridicule]!

So too with Moshe.  He said: "And the cause that is too hard for you, bring it to me and I will hear it".  Tzelofhad's daughters came and it was beyond Moshe's comprehension.  "And Moshe brought their cause before Hashem."  "The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly" - that is the law.  Hashem said to him: "Did you not say and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it to me and I will hear it?" The law that you do not know, the women are judging. 

Davar Acher: Reish Lakish says: Moshe Rabbeinu knew this law but at first the captains over the tens came and said: "this is a law of inheritance and it is not ours but rather those greater than we."  They came to the captains over the fifties; they saw that the captains over the tens respected them.  The captains over the fifties said: "there are those greater than we."  Thus to the captains over the hundreds and captains over the thousands and the princes answered them all in this matter.  They did not want to open (the matter) before someone who was greater than them.

They went before Elazar.  He told them: "Here is Moshe Rabbeinu!" Come all of us before Moshe.  Moshe saw that each and every one respected those that were greater than themselves, and said:  If I tell them the law, I will take (upon myself) the greatness; he said to them "Even (for) me, there is someone greater than I."  Therefore: “And Moshe brought their cause before Hashem".


From the words of the Midrash, we see that two distinct approaches in understanding what occurred.  The first approach argues that Moshe Rabbeinu’s lack of knowledge was a punishment, based on what appeared to be over-confidence when he accepted Yitro’s suggestion that he not deal with the daily judging of the community, but preserve himself for the difficult questions only.  The taint of arrogance and conceit in his words needed to be corrected, so that all of Benei Yisrael would know who the Ultimate source of knowledge is.  The second approach, however, argues that Moshe Rabbeinu in fact knew the correct response.  Why then did he choose not to answer?  To set an example for the judges present and in the future.  If even the greatest leader in history chose to risk humiliation and ask for assistance, clearly others should do so when confronted with a difficult question. 


It should be noted that Reish Lakish’s approach, that the daughter’s of Tzelofhad approached the lesser judges before coming to Moshe, provides interesting exegesis for two specific textual peculiarities.  The first textual anomaly that the Midrash answers is the introduction of the episode with the words "Then came the daughters of Tzelofhad," as opposed to stating simply that "… the daughters of Tzelofhad stood before…”  The word "then came" (Hebrew: va'tikravna) always has an additional instruction as opposed to simply describing a physical approach.  The second textual issue is one already noted by the Midrash:


Sifrei Pinchas 12 "And they stood before Moshe and before Elazar the Kohen and before the princes."  If Moshe didn't know, would Elazar have known? But the text is distorted and must be explained - according to Rabbi Yoshiyahu.  Abba Hanan would say in the name of Rabbi Elazar: They were in the academy when they [i.e. the daughters of Tzelofhad] came and stood before them. 


Note that the Midrash is dealing with the extra wording “before Moshe and before Elazar the Cohen and before the princes.”  According to Abba Hanan, the reason that the other notables are mentioned is purely incidental – they happened to be present when the daughters came to stake their claim.  However, the first opinion suggests that the daughters went to the lesser courts before going to Moshe for recourse.  Why than is Moshe listed first, even though this was not the correct chronological order?  Apparently, the Torah chose to distort the chronological order in order to give Moshe Rabbeinu respect. 


The Zohar brings an interesting interpretation of Moshe Rabbeinu’s behavior, based on the strange manner in which the daughter’s phrased their request to Moshe.  Tzelofhad's daughters opening statement that "but he died in his own sin" is difficult.  What honor is given to the father and to the deceased when they recall his transgression? For what reason do they recall his transgression, and how does it help their case?  Tzelofhad's sin is not explained in the Torah and therefore there are numerous different traditions as there are identifications that identify Tzelofhad with one of the men about whom the Torah speaks.  The Zohar preserves an entirely different tradition than the more popular rabbinic argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda Ben Batira, whether Tzelofhad gathered wood on Shabbat, of if he was among the Ma'apilim:


Sefer Ha-zohar Parashat Balak, Part 3, page 205, column B:

The claim made by the daughters of Tzelofhad that he died in the wilderness, is that Tzelofhad was a leader for the House of Yosef but he did not sufficiently know the ways of the Torah.  He was therefore not a prince.  He did not guard his mouth.  His words were against Moshe as it is written (Bamidbar 21:5), "And the people spoke against Hashem and against Moshe." Tzelofhad was the speaker and of him it is written (ibid. 21:6) "and many [Hebrew: rav = "many"] people of Israel died." Since they did not know Torah and he was a leader [in Hebrew: "Rav" means "leader" or "teacher" as well as meaning "many"] in the family; a leader from the seed of Yosef, from the sons of Menashe. 

Since he sinned in the desert in his speech against Moshe, (his daughters) thought that Moshe would bear hatred against him.  For this reason they approached Moshe and Elazar and all of the princes and the heads of the fathers.  They did not speak with Moshe but rather with them, "begin d'kanu kina mineiha" [Translation of the Sulam: because they were suspicious of him].  From here - one who fears a judge should approach other judges and increase the number of people [involved] with that judge, in order that they hear his decision and he fear them.  He will then only judge properly.  If not [= if he does not judge in a worthy manner], they will dismiss him from being a judge.  They did not know that Moshe was the humblest of all men nor did they know that Moshe was not like that.  Since Moshe saw that such was the case, he said: I see the gathering of all the leaders of groups of thousands in Israel and all the heads of families and all the princes of the community.  He immediately removed himself from making a decision.  This is what is written, "And Moshe brought their case before Hashem." Other judges do not adopt this path even when faced with a large gathering.  These judges are called shameless.  They totally lack the humility of Moshe whose portion was a happy one.


The Zohar interprets that Tzelofhad was the rabble-rouser who spoke against Moshe in the previous episode.  Therefore, the daughters chose to approach Moshe only when he was surrounded by the other notables so that he would not act in a vengeful manner.  Sensing their hesitancy, Moshe immediately understood and reclused himself from deciding the case due to perceived conflict of interest.  Like Reish Lakish in the preceding Midrash, Moshe knew the proper course of action, but chose to defer to Hashem to set a positive example for future judges.   


The final approach that we will suggest comes again from the Midrash:


Shir Ha-shirim Rabba Section 1, Verse 10:3:

"Your neck in precious stones"...  Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Hama on behalf of Rabbi Hanina said: these are the portions of the Torah, and they are interconnected one to the other and pull each other and leap one from the other and are similar one to the other and close on to the other.  Rabbi Menahem said: Like judgment, as it is written (Bamidbar 26:53) "To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance."  What is there written (ibid. 27:1)? "Then came the daughters of Tzelofhad"; (ibid. 27:7) "The daughters of Tzelofhad speak correctly" and it is written afterwards (ibid. 27:12) "Go up into Mount Avarim, mount Nevo". 

How are these matters connected? Since the Land had been divided the daughters of Tzelofhad came to Moshe to take their portion.  Moshe removed himself from their judgement, as the text states (ibid 27:5) "And Moshe brought their cause before the Lord."  Hashem told him: "Moshe, you remove yourself from their judgment and before me you do not remove yourself! Go up into Mount Avarim."

(Another terminology in Midrash Aggadah of Pinchas: From the judgement of Torah you remove yourself, perhaps from my judgment you [wish] to be able to remove yourself? Go up into Mount Avarim"...)


According to this interpretation, like the Zohar and Reish Lakish before, Moshe indeed knew the proper course of action; however, as opposed to the preceding interpretations, his motivations for not responding are negative.  According to Shir Ha-shirim Rabba, Moshe does not want to judge the matter of apportioning the land since he was punished that he would not enter the land.  To this Hashem responded: You may protest in this manner against My decree but the degree will, in any case, be carried out.