A Living Torah! Quick Comment: Parashat Massey (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

The Book of Numbers ends with a modification to the ruling that Zelophehad’s daughters could inherit their father’s property (Numbers 27).

The tribesmen of Zelophehad appeal the ruling saying if the daughters marry outside the tribe, the tribe’s holdings would diminish.

God and Moses uphold the appeal and rule that Zelophehad’s daughters are free to marry whom they wish but only within their tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 36:12).

Without diminishing the enormous gain for women’s rights that the original ruling represented, the appeal verdict maintains tribal integrity (perhaps not important to us but certainly important then).

As it turns out Zelophehad’s daughters victory opened the door to the expansion of women’s rights in subsequent Jewish law, a process that the rabbis of the Mishnah (200BCE – 200CE) pursued enthusiastically.

By the first pre Christian century Jewish law instituted the Ketubah, a contract, as the basis for marriage. It’s most important provision was a lien on the husband’s property for a substantial sum to be paid to the wife if he divorced his wife or if he died (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 82b).

Although technically a woman could not divorce her husband, the rabbis approved a broad array of circumstances under which a woman could take her husband to court, which would force the husband to divorce and pay his wife the value of her Ketubah. These circumstances included changing jobs or location without his wife’s consent, (Babylonian Talmud, 52b, 110b; Mishnah Ketubot 13:10) and refusing to try to meet her sexual needs, (Mishnah, Ketubot 5:6).

The final words of the Book of Numbers testify that the Torah must prudently adapt to changing realities while maintaining Torah’s sanctity. The Rabbis of the Talmud and MIshnah were up to that challenge. Are we?

2 thoughts on “A Living Torah! Quick Comment: Parashat Massey (Numbers 33:1-36:13)

    1. There is, Susan! Still, sanctity and critical, open-minded interpretive thinking have sometimes been a volatile mix. It is so worth the effort to have both! Thank you!


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