We Knew We Had a Landmark Case

Numbers 25:10—30:1

By Judith Bolton-Fasman

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad…. And they stood before Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying… [Numbers 27:1-2]

“I am Machlah, one of the daughters of Zelophehad. We are five sisters altogether. Tirzah is our center. Dreamy Tirzah. She’s certain she’ll be able to marry for love once she has her patch of land. It’s been years, but I still secretly say Kaddish for my father. I want something of his to call my own. But the reality is that we are middle-aged brotherless women who want what has always been ours — land promised to our family when we reach Canaan.

“When our father died in the desert we came together — half of a minyan, seeking five other women to bring the number to 10, and said Kaddish for our father. Our father died for the sin of speaking against Moses, but we are among the righteous women of the wilderness generation — women who worshiped the God of our father and mother faithfully during the golden calf debacle. We rejected the gloom and doom reports of the spies who first returned from Canaan. We have never stopped looking toward our future in the Promised Land. Our land. Land promised to us and our family.

“We knew that we would have a fight on our hands when the land was apportioned and we were not on anyone’s list to claim this property. We asked Serach, our godmother, our mentor, to stand with us.

“From the beginning we knew we had a landmark case. We were attempting nothing less then to challenge the prevailing patriarchy. If we won, it would improve life for all of our wilderness sisters. Serach said that our role in the community illuminated the nation of Israel’s larger story. “Remember,” she gently told us, “we may be socially disadvantaged, but we are not inferior to men.”

“Serach knows a thing or two about transcending social status. She was the only one of Jacob’s granddaughters mentioned in the family genealogy. When we were in mourning for our father, she led the shiva minyan and said Kaddish for all of the female cousins she outlived. Jacob blessed her with extraordinary longevity after she gently told him that Joseph was still alive. And she knew where Joseph’s bones were when it came time to collect them for interment in the Promised Land. Without that knowledge, there would have been no Exodus.

“At over 500 years old, Serach is regal and authoritative. She also has her Uncle Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams. Last night she dreamed that God answered the prayers of half a minyan. She was not afraid. She and God had spoken on other occasions, and she pointedly asked, ‘What in this world of yours, our God and God of our ancestors, could possibly disqualify these women from tending their own garden?’”

And Moses brought their cause before the Lord. And [then] the Lord said to Moses. ‘The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen: Transfer their father’s share to them. Further speak to the Israelite people as follows: If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.’” [Numbers 27:5-8]

“But later there was a stipulation:

This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: Let them be married to whom they think best; only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married. [Numbers 36:6]

“We had to marry within our tribe of Menasseh in order to keep the property in the family. This was no surprise. Serach had warned us that the patriarchy would somehow be restored. We comforted Tirzah, but I looked forward to the companionship. And eventually Tirzah complied and each of us married a first cousin.”

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a writer living in Newton, Mass.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.