The Daughters of Zelophehad and the Five Feminine Powers of the Kabbalah by Rabbi Jill Hammer

Jill anointing her daughter. photo by Shoshana Jedwab

This summer, I visited Iceland, a beautiful and magical land.  While I was there, I saw the Kerid Crater, which is a caldera: a volcanic crater with a lake inside.  My family and I hiked around the edge of the crater and then down close to the lake.  The perfect roundness of the crater-lake gave the impression of a circular container—a jewel-box shaped by some immense hand— or else a massive eye looking up from the earth.  My daughter and I sat by the lake’s waters and anointed one another, having the sense we were in a sacred place.

Later that summer, I grappled with a story that reminded me of the crater. In Numbers 27, five sisters—the daughters of a man named Tzelafchad—approach Moses with a question.  Their father had daughters, not sons, and it seems this means his family will receive no land allotment in Canaan.  The daughters ask that they be given land allotments: “Let our father’s name not be lost to his clan just because he had no son!” (Numbers 27:4).  Moses takes their complaint to God and brings back an answer: the daughters have spoken rightly, and will receive a land allotment as they request.  However, they must marry men of their own tribe so that the tribal land is not lost— if the women married men of another tribe, their heirs would belong to that other tribe and so the land would change its tribal designation.  Thus, patriarchy is mitigated but not ultimately contradicted—the women become heirs to their father, but primarily for their father’s sake, not their own. 

Yet there is an egalitarian shift even in the way these women’s names appear in the text.  It is rare to see the name of even one daughter in biblical lineages, never mind five. Yet the daughters’ names appear in multiple places: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. These names can mean forgiveness, movement, partridge, queen, and desire.  In another translation, all the names relate to movement: “dance,” “moving”, “circling,” “walking,” “running.” In the Bible and in other texts archaeologists have uncovered, all five names appear as the names of villages in ancient Israel. This suggests that these five women were honored by their clans as founding ancestors. The names appear in different orders in different places, suggesting no one sister was more important than the others.

photo by Shoshana Jedwab

The rabbinic tradition understands these women as wise and knowledgeable in argument, and suggests all kinds of reasoning they might have used to support their case. One midrash (interpretive legend) suggests that the daughters say to one another: “While human beings value men more, God values everyone equally” and thus conclude that God may hear their case. Yet most rabbinic commentators depict the women as concerned for their father’s honor and hasten to assert that the women are not asking for land on their own behalf. Contemporary readers, however, often see the daughters as proto-feminist innovators who seek rights they have not yet been granted—as the beginning of egalitarian activism in Jewish tradition. For example, the poet Elizabeth Aliya Topper writes:  “They are pious and wise/and they call us to action:/to move from the place/of injustice and bias/and pave the untrodden way.”

I wanted to make some meaning out of the listing of the five names, and so I conducted a search of the sources, and found that the kabbalistic tradition sees a hidden secret in the naming of these five women.  An eighteenth century text called Nachal Kedumim, written by the kabbalist Hayyim Joseph David Azulay, suggests that the five daughters of Tzelafchad relate to the five feminine aspects of the divine, known as the five gevurot or strengths. The other five of the ten divine aspects are the masculine powers, the five chasadim or generosities. In the kabbalah, the masculine is identified with love and “outflow” and the feminine with severity and “containment” which is somewhat reversed from modern gender stereotypes.  Together, these two sets of five form the ten sefirot or divine facets.

The five gevurot or feminine powers are the five sefirot of Binah, Gevurah, Hod, Yesod and Malkhut—which I would translate as: creative knowing, boundaried strength, humble grace, intimate connection, and grounded being. (Note: Yesod is not always considered a feminine aspect, and in fact often represents the divine phallus, but for purposes of dividing the ten aspects in half, it is considered feminine rather than masculine, as a conduit between male and female.) 

While I use the kabbalah as a spiritual tool with a bit of caution, given that I don’t generally buy into its complex gender and sexual polarities, I do find it a rich source of spiritual imagination. I wondered what would happen if, in honor of the five sisters, I meditated on these five divine aspects as a set of attributes of God/dess. When I did, what I discovered was a variety of spiritual containers: a bubbling cauldron-like container for creative knowing, a strong-walled container for strength, a vast oceanic container for grace, a long telephone-cord-like container for connection, and so forth.  Each container, as I entered them one after another, seemed to offer me a different opportunity to fortify, relax, or expand my boundaries. This mystical teaching has given me a new way to appreciate the five daughters who stood up for themselves, who reached for new boundaries, and to whom God/dess said: “Yes.”

The caldera I saw this summer was a crater that had provided a container for rainwater, and had become a wondrous round lake ringed by cliffs. The water by itself was powerful, but it was the size, shape, majesty and strength of the container that made the lake as awe-inspiring as it was.  That magical site, and my experience of the five gevurot, are leaving me with a new sense of the power of taking shape, of recognizing our form and substance. Only when we take our right shape can we hold all we were meant to hold. This is also the lesson of the five daughters of Zelophehad.

Rabbinic and Kabbalistic References:

Midrash Aggadah, Numbers 7:1

Midrash Tanhuma, Pinchas 7:1

Nachal Kedumim (Azulay) on Numbers 26:33

Sifrei Bamidbar 133:1

Contemporary References:

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. “Pinchas: Legacy of Law, Leadership, and Land,” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, eds. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Elizabeth (Aliya) Topper, “Call to Gather,” from Parasha Poems.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, scholar, ritualist, poet, midrashist and dreamworker, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org), and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org). She is the author of the just-released Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreaming as well as other books including Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries.  She lives in Manhattan with her family.



Categories: Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Jewish Feminism, Kabbalah, Women's Agency, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Enjoyed this. Thank you and very relevant to other conversations going on in my life at the moment. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brava! This might be your most interesting post yet. Five daughters who became recognized foremothers with tribes named after them. I’ve read the Bible once or twice, but I didn’t remember this at all. My study of the Qabala is based on Dion Fortune. Some similarities to your studies, some differences, but always highly complex and fascinating. Bright blessings to your work. Stay safe.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is so illuminating! I had no idea about these sisters, either. The story reminds me of some stories about women small farmers around the world in a book called Women Who Dig by Trina Moyles, which I recently posted about. A number of the women farmers profiled were prevented from owning the land they farmed either by law or custom or both. The sense I got from the book was that they wanted to own the land not for status or a sense of power over the land, which was true of their husbands, but because they wanted to be able to farm the land in sustainable ways that honored the land and their relationship to it, as well as for financial security and credit so that they could access resources to properly farm the land without harming it. In any case, they remind me of your five containers – creative knowing, strength, grace, etc. and it makes me think of the universality of those containers and positive relationships with the land. Fortunately, the laws and customs are changing for the women in the book, so maybe, millennia after that Biblical story happened and was told for generations, women will soon no longer have to ask permission to come into their positive relationships with the land they live on and work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great info. I love the etymology of words which reveals many secrets. You’ve done a great job of uncovering meanings for the names of the sisters very relevant to us today.

    Like

  5. A beautiful piece, so interesting and informative, and I love your connecting it at beginning and end with the perfect little crater lake you found in Iceland.

    Like

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