In the Torah, our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah played such prominent roles in the narrative that they are included in the first paragraph of the central tefilah prayers of our Shabbat, holiday, and weekday services. There were, however, other lesser-known women in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) whose compelling stories resulted in changes to Jewish law or ritual. Let us consider the biblical accounts of Hannah and the daughters of Zelophehad.
The story of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, appears in the Book of Samuel in the collection of biblical books known as Nevi’im (Prophets). Hannah spent many tortured years yearning for a child. During her yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh with her husband, Hannah snuck off to the local temple sanctuary to pray alone, vowing that if God would bless her with a son, she would commit his life to the service of God.
Eli, the High Priest, who watched her swaying back and forth while her lips moved silently, determined that she must be drunk. Until that time prayer had always been said aloud, so her silent prayer was not something he would have understood. Admonishing her for being drunk in the temple, Hannah eloquently informed him that she was not drunk, merely praying fervently to God for a child. A year later, her wish came true.
By introducing silent prayer, Hannah taught us that introspection is a key element of prayer. Reaching deep into our hearts and souls, we can quietly connect with God on our own terms. As with Hannah, our private prayers have the power to be transformative.
THE DAUGHTERS OF ZELOPHEHAD: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah
In chapters 26 & 27 of Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), we read that a census of all males over the age of 20 was taken and that God instructed Moses that the land was to be divided up among those males. With their father having passed away and summoning what must have been great courage, the daughters of Zelophehad approached Moses, Eleazar the Priest, the Chieftains, and the entire Assembly to assert their right to a share in the apportioned land.
“Our father died in the wilderness… [and] he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:3-4)
Moses agreed to approach God and was told: “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.” (Numbers 27:7)
Later the terms of their land inheritance were modified to include the condition that they marry within their own tribe (Manasseh) in order to ensure that the division of tribal land remained intact. Nevertheless, because of their courage, the laws of the chain of inheritance were altered to include females in the absence of male heirs.
While most female minor characters in the Torah remain anonymous, each of these women is specifically named, thus giving them agency and a voice. In what was a patriarchal society, the fate of women in the Torah was mainly determined by their fathers or husbands. However, this story illustrates a significant departure from what had been the accepted practice, thus setting a precedent for the women of subsequent generations.
There are many other great women whose lives are detailed in the Tanakh including Deborah, Yael, Naomi, and Ruth among others. The actions of these women helped shape the course of Jewish history. I encourage you to take the time to look them up. You will no doubt be impressed!