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by Jacob Solomon

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"Our father died in the desert, but he was not among the assembly that stood against G-d in the assembly of Korach, for he died though his own sin, and he did not have sons" (27:3).


Such was the nature of the claim made by the Daughters of Zelaphchad, in order to inherit their deceased father's portion in the Promised Land. They strengthened their claim by emphasizing that their father had not been involved with Korach's dispute. This was important - as the Sforno explains, when G-d destroyed Korach and his congregation, He also consumed their property. They also added that Zelaphchad died of his own sin. How did that support their claim?

The Talmud (Shabbat 96b) discusses this point. It quotes R. Akiva as saying that Zelaphchad was the individual who was executed for gathering wood on Shabbat (15:36). R. Shimon disagrees, claiming that he belonged to the group that defied Moses by attempting to make their way to the Promised Land after the decree of having to wander forty years in the desert. (14:44). So in both cases Zelaphchad sinned. How was 'died by his own sin' a recommendation?

One answer is to first consider the language used by the Daughters of Zelaphchad. The word they used in referring to their father's sin is chet. As explained by Rabbeinu Tam (Talmud: Rosh Hashanna 17b, Tosefot s.v. shalosh) there are three types of offence: avon - meaning intentional sin, pesha - transgression done to rebel against G-d, and chet - a wrongful act done out of carelessness. The sin of Zelaphchad was therefore not done purposely.

Applying this to the dispute over the nature of Zelaphchad's sin - according to R. Akiva, the offence was the gathering of sticks on Shabbat. The Talmud derives from that story that a Beth Din may not punish an individual unless witnesses warn the offender before he commits the act (Sanhedrin 41a). Reading this into the incident it is possible to suggest the following. Zelaphchad had been warned, but he was an individual who wanted to make a point - in public. He did not dispute that it was forbidden to work on Shabbat. Rather, he sincerely claimed that the laws of Shabbat were not so 'extreme' - lighting a fire was expressly forbidden (Ex. 35:3), but it did not include the mere act of gathering sticks. Being a consistent person, he wanted to teach a 'lesson' to the 'extremists' - in effect he was saying: "Here I am, an Observant Israelite, proclaiming by my act that it is permitted to gather sticks on Shabbat".

A interpretation on similar lines may be given for R. Shimon, who said that Zelaphchad was one of those who tried to go to the Promised Land on his own after the Decree. Even though Moses expressly told them, "Do not go up because G-d is not in your midst" (14:42) they reasoned their defiance of Moses as follows. "We have a special love for the Land. We have the single-minded determination to fulfil the Mitzvah of settling in the Promised Land at all costs. G-d will give special protection to people with motives as genuine and pure as ours." This was much in the spirit shown later by Pinchas. As Chazal explain (Sanhedrin 82a), Moses was unable to act against Zimri, but Pinchas was zealous in 'doing the right thing' by killing Zimri, and G-d rewarded him for it (25:13). However Pinchas used his genuine zeal where Moses did not know what to do. This contrasts with Zelaphchad who allowed his sincere enthusiasm to get the better of him in defying the order that Moses received from G-d.

The word chet is used to describe the reason for Zelaphchad's early death. Common to both interpretations of bechet'o - his own chet, was the courage to demonstrate what he believed to be correct, in the face of opposition. This by itself was something good, so long as it was within the bounds of the Torah, as turned out to be the case where Pinchas killed Zimri. However Zelaphchad's 'own chet' was carelessness - according to both interpretations he allowed his zeal to get the better of him, taking him out of the bounds of the Torah.

This therefore explains the reason why Zelaphchad's daughters mentioned their father's sin in their claim for a portion in the Land. Their father sinned, but not in rebellion or defiance. Rather, at the heart of his sin was positive zeal, and Zelaphchad himself had erred - carelessly - in letting his genuine enthusiasm take him out of the scope of the teachings of the Torah.



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