Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


ZELOPHEHAD (Heb. צְלָפְחָד), son of Hepher, descendant of Manasseh. He died in the wilderness without male issue (Num. 26:33; 27:1). His five daughters, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcha, and Tirzah, requested of Moses that they be recognized as female heirs and granted their father's inheritance of land. They pleaded that although their father had suffered the punishment of dying in the course of the desert wanderings, he had committed no exceptional sin, such as participation in the revolt of Koraḥ, that might merit the destruction of his "name." The case was decided by divine decree in favor of the daughters, and it led to the promulgation of legislation providing for the disposal of the property of a man who died without a male heir (ibid. 27:1–11). This ruling occasioned an inter-tribal problem in that, should Zelophehad's daughters marry outside their tribe, the estate would consequently pass into the possession of their husbands and the latter's tribes. By divine decision Zelophehad's daughters were required to marry within the tribe of Manasseh and, in fact, they were given to their cousins. To protect the total tribal inheritances, it was laid down that all heiresses must marry within their own tribe (ibid. 36:1–12).

It is of interest that although Zelophehad was descended from Gilead, his daughters received their patrimony from Joshua west of the Jordan (Josh. 17:3–6). In the Samaria Ostraca two of their names, Noah and Hoglah, appear as the names of districts within the territory of Manasseh.

In the Aggadah

Both Zelophehad and his father, Hepher, were among those whom Moses had led out of Egypt. Zelophehad himself was therefore entitled to three portions in Ereẓ Israel (two as the firstborn of his father, and one in his own right), and his daughters claimed all three portions when their father died (bb 122b). Moses had to refer this claim to God because, although aware of the general right of a daughter to inherit, he was unsure of their right to claim in addition the dual portion of their father's birthright (ibid., 119a). Another opinion, however, is that Moses did not know whether God had forgiven Zelophehad for the sin on account of which he had died in the desert (Num. 27:3). It was only when God mentioned Zelophehad by name (ibid., 27:7), that Moses knew that he had been forgiven (Zohar 3:157a). Zelophehad was neither one of those who murmured against God (Num. 11:1), nor one who joined the ten spies in their condemnation of Ereẓ Israel (ibid., 14:1), since the participants in both these movements were automatically denied all rights of inheritance in Ereẓ Israel. This was also the punishment of the followers of Koraḥ (which is why Zelophehad's daughters specifically stated that their father did not participate in this sin; Num 27:3; Sif. Num. 133; bb 18b). Judah ben Bathyra maintained that Zelophehad was one of those who "presumed to go up to the top of the mountain" (Num. 14:44); while R. Akiva was of the opinion that it was he who gathered wood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32; Shab. 96b), the two incidents being juxtaposed (bb 119a).

The daughters of Zelophehad are highly praised for their sagacity in presenting their problem at an appropriate moment, when Moses was expounding the laws of levirate marriage. They showed outstanding exegetic ability in arguing their own case. They are also praised for their virtue, and for the care with which they chose their husbands (bb 119b). Although permitted to marry men from any tribe, they were so careful in their choice that even the youngest waited until she was 40 years old before finding a worthy husband (ibid., 120a).


G.B. Gray, Numbers (icc, 1903), index. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index; I. Hasida, Ishei ha-Tanakh (1964), 373–4.