Thursday, July 01, 2010

What was Zelophehad's sin?

When Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah made their emotional appeal to Moshe, they said their father Zelophehad had not taken part in Korah’s rebellion, but only died "of his own sin." The sin is not identified and indeed after R. Akiva, on BT Shabbos 96b suggests Zelophehad was the stick gatherer who is executed   in Numbers 15 for violating Shabbos, R. Yehuda ben Beteira rebukes him for speculating:
Akiva, either way, in the future you will have to give an accounting. If it is as you say, then the Torah [deliberately] conceals his identity, while you are revealing it; if it is not as you say, then you are slandering that righteous man."

Despite Yehuda ben Beteira's all together sound objection to naming Zelophehad's sin, the belief that Zelophehad was the stick gatherer has taken hold in the popular Orthodox Jewish imagination. All sorts of meta interpretations have been created to explain why he gathered sticks starting with BT Bava Basra 119b where we're told that Zelophehad went stick collecting only for the sake of proving to the wandering Israelites that Shabbos is important.

Another, far, far less famous interpretation, though its also found in the Talmud, and in Rashi's commentary,  is that Zelophehad was one of the maapilim, i.e.  the group of proto-Zionists who, in Numbers 14, rejected the you-Jews-are-staying-in-the-desert-for-forty-years decree and attempted to enter Canaan on their own. They were all wiped out.

What did the interpreters see that suggested to them that Zelophehad's sin was one or the other? Sometimes discovering the textual clues that led the interpreters in a particular directon can be difficult to reconstruct. In this case the Talmud gives us one answer. The stick gatherer, we're specifically told, committed his sin "in the desert"; later when the five Daughters go to Moshe, they reiterate that their father died "in the desert" Because mentioning the desert seems superfluous in both instances (where else would the sticks have been gathered, and where else would Zelophehad  have died?) the interpreters concluded that the stick gatherer and Zelophead were the same man.

According to Josh over at Parshablog, there are some other clues. First, we have the juxtaposition of stories. If you look back through the bible from the Daughters of Zelophead episode, the first sinner you encounter is Kozbi, the second is Korah and the third is the stick gatherer. Second, there's a parallel between the two accounts: Both the stick gatherer and the Daughters of Zelopheahad created situations that stumped Moshe. He didn't know how to punish the stick gatherer, and he didn't know how to answer the Daughters. In both cases he asked God for a ruling.

All of this seems to be pretty sound justification for the Zelophehad = stick gatherer interpretation. So where did the second, less famous, identification of Zelophehad as one of the maapilim come from? As follows: The stick gatherer sinned, and was killed in Year 1. The Daughters appealed to Moshe in Year 40. According to some interpreters, 5 elderly spinsters from one father was just too unlikely. This rules out Zelophehad = stick gatherer. If you continue to page backwards through the bible, the next sinners you encounter after the stick gatherer are the maapilim. Additionally, the sin of the maapilim seems to have been this: They loved Israel too much. This trait seems evident in the Daughters who went to Moshe in the first place because they could not abide the possibility that they would have no share in the Land.

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