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Women's Issues

Women in Judaism

Womens’ Inheritance

Question: Please explain Numbers 27 regarding whether women are allowed or not to receive inheritance. In this Torah portion it seems like women (daughters) are unable to inherit anything unless they have no brothers. How come there are many wills in which Jews give inheritance to their daughters ?

Answer: Your question was already asked over 1500 years ago by the Talmud (Kesubos 52b). The issue being discussed was “Kesubos Bnin Dichrin, which was a stipulation in a marriage contract stating that the dowry a father would give his daughter to bring into her marriage would be inherited only by her biological children, but not by the children of her
husband from another wife. The Talmud there questions the correctness of giving a dowry at all. Since the Torah specifies that a father’s estate must pass down to his sons first, how can a father give away a significant portion of his estate to his daughter for her marriage?

The Talmud answers (based on a verse in Jeremiah): since a father is responsible to try to marry off his children, and giving his daughters a dowry will help facilitate their attracting husbands, the giving of a dowry is therefore also a Torah value. Since no prohibition is violated by a father giving a large gift to his daughter before his death (technically, this is not an inheritance), in the case of a dowry it is even proper to do so.

Another old time example of creating a legal mechanism to give a daughter a significant gift before her father dies is the Shtar Chetzi Zachar (mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 90:1). Here, as opposed to a dowry, the gift is given to the daughter just a moment before her father’s death. Thus, though technically it is not an inheritance, it’s almost indistinguishable from one.

As we’ve mentioned, in both these cases, the letter of the Torah law of inheritance has not been violated. (It goes without saying that any proposed method which would violate the actual Torah law would not be valid.) The only question that could is arise is whether it is appropriate to circumvent the apparent spirit of the Torah law.

We’ve already explained why a dowry is certainly in the spirit of the Torah, for the law of inheritance was never intended to inhibit a father from spending money to marry of his daughter. The Shtar Chetzi Zachar, however, which looks exactly like an inheritance, may appear more questionable.

But here too, the Shtar Chetzi Zachar was instituted to give a gift to a daughter who may need the money more than her brothers. Maybe her brothers are wealthy, while the daughter is struggling. A gift to this daughter is at least a mitzvah of tzedaka. If the daughter had always helped her father, a gift to her would be a mitzvah of showing proper appreciation (hakaras hatov). Again, the Torah law of inheritance was never meant to inhibit a father from giving these kinds of gifts.

I’ll add one thought of my own, which is only a guess. It could be that the basic Torah laws of inheritance were intended to work best for the Jewish nation living in Eretz Yisrael, where every family had a set ancestral portion, passed down its family line. Most families would possess similar portions of land and be in similar financial situations. Further, each of the twelve tribes would properly provide for their own members through the Torah’s system of tzedaka.

Our world today is not so idyllic or stable. Even in ancient times, when there was a particular problem, these devices could be used by a father to protect his daughters. The Torah is designed to guide us through every situation in this world, hard or easy, and meet the particular challenges of every generation.

And it does, for every person who sincerely strives to follow it.

Shlomo Shulman
Maimonides at Yale

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