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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
The Torah portions of Pinehas and Maasei present an interesting juxtaposition of women’s rights, the male prerogative, and marriage – all within the context of the the five most famous sisters in the biblical history: the daughters of Zelophehad. Most importantly, however, for the purpose of this column, is the principle that emerges regarding the importance of choosing your own spouse.
In Pinehas, Zelopehad’s daughters first make their appearance seeking to secure for themselves their rightful inheritance: their father’s portion in the Promised Land. They are well aware that they live in a fairly male-dominated world in which, among many other things, male sons inherit their fathers’ assets. But, they point out, what if there are no sons – just daughters? Will we still go looking for the next male kinsman, such as a brother? Or will we respect the linear line of inheritance, and – in the absence of sons – allow daughters to inherit their father? You can well imagine that Zelophehad’s brothers – the other sons of Hefer – almost certainly presented amici curiae arguing for priority to be given to male relatives. Nevertheless, as we are taught in Pinehas, Moses brought their question before G-d, and G-d sided the with the daughters of Zelophehad. Where there are no male sons, daughters inherit their fathers.
This created a problem, however, identified in Maasei. G-d carefully apportioned the land of Israel among the twelve tribes, ensuring that each tribe had its own piece of land, with specific contours. Under Torah law, children belong to the tribe of their father. This was never a problem, so long as sons inherited their father. Where a daughter inherits her father, however, this can indeed pose a problem; for if a woman belonging to one tribe marries a man belonging to a different tribe, her death will effectively transfer her land away from her original tribe, and to tribe of her son, who inherits her, and who belongs to the tribe of his father. Thus, for example, if a daughter of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Menasseh, married a man from the tribe of Judah, her land would ultimately belong to the tribe of Judah, and would diminish the portion of the Land of Israel that G-d so carefully allocated to Menasseh. This was the argument made by Zelophehad’s daughters’ uncles.
This time, G-d agreed with the uncles, and commanded the daughters of Zelophehad as follows: “Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only to the family of their father’s tribe.” Numbers, 36:6.
This then was the balance struck by Torah between preserving each of the twelve divisions of the Land of Israel as ordained by G-d, on the one hand, but also recognizing the rights of a female landowner – both to her property, as well as in her choice of husband: she may marry anybody that she likes provided that he is from her own tribe. The Torah reports that this compromise brooked no argument from Zelophehad’s daughters; “as the Lord had commanded Moses, so did Zelophehad’s daughters do.” Numbers, 36:10.
(In a male-dominated world it is significant that no greater restrictions were placed on Zelophchad’s daughters; after all, G-d not only divided the Land of Israel into twelve, but he commanded that each of the twelve portions be further subdivided among [the families of] those that left Egypt. One could easily imagine, therefore, that someone might seek to place further restrictions on whom the daughters of Zelophchad may marry, given that their marriage could cause their land to be transferred from one family to another family within the same tribe, thereby increasing the holdings of the family into which they married. Nevertheless, no further restrictions were placed on whom Zelophchad’s daughters were permitted to marry, provided they belonged to the same tribe.)
Despite the apparent reasonableness of G-d’s compromise, however, it was considered a source of sadness that there would be any restriction at all on whom a woman might choose to marry. Thus, years later, after the Israelites divided and settled the Land of Israel, they determined that the prohibition against tribal intermarriage applied only to the generation that entered the land, but that subsequent generations are permitted to marry whomever they choose, without restriction. This freedom, declared on the 15th day of the month of Av, was such a source of joy for the Jewish people that it is cited as one of the reasons for Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s statement that “there was no happier days for the people of Israel than the 15th day of Av.” Talmud Bavli, Ta’anit, 30b.
In fact, Torah considers a person’s freedom to choose his/her spouse to be so important that it trumps the biblical commandment of honoring one’s parents! Thus, if a woman’s parents disapprove of a potential husband, yet she wishes to marry him anyway, it is her right to do so. Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 240:25, RaMoh. Although she is certainly required to consider her parents’ counsel, out of respect, the final decision remains in the her hands.
Why is choosing one’s own spouse so important?
Because there are powerful and mystical forces at play in our choice of spouse, that far transcend our consciousness. Marriage is the coming together of two halves of one soul; a union of spiritually seismic impact. If you can imagine the destructive power unleashed when a single physical atom is split, you can appreciate the incredible power in the joining and reuniting of two halves of one soul, which itself is nothing less than a piece of the divine. Thus, only one who possesses one half of that soul would be responsive to the magnetic pull that draws him or her to the person possessing the other half. No matter how incompatible that couple may appear to be on paper, such considerations and incompatibilities are insignificant next to inexorable cosmic pull of one half-soul towards its match, seeking reunification at last.