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The Talmud’s Hot Tub Time Machine

How Moses could know how his people’s story would end before it was even written is in keeping with the spirit of ‘Daf Yomi’

Adam Kirsch
May 23, 2017

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

A strange, time-bending moment came in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in the course of the rabbis’ extensive discussion of the laws of inheritance. As we saw last week, the order in which a deceased Jew’s relatives inherit his property was established in the Torah in Numbers Chapter 27, in the episode of Zelophehad’s daughters. After their father died, these daughters went to Moses claiming that they should be allowed to inherit from him, since he had no sons. Moses brought the question to God, who ruled in favor of the daughters, and laid down a general rule: First sons inherit, then daughters, then brothers, then paternal uncles. The Mishna introduces an important change in this order, however, inserting the father of the deceased as an heir, after his daughters, and before his brothers.

In Bava Batra 119b, the Gemara comments that the daughters of Zelophehad were wise because “they spoke in accordance with the moment”—that is, they raised their claim at an opportune time. Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak explains what this means: They went before Moses at the moment when he “was sitting and interpreting the Torah portion about men whose married brothers had died childless.” This is the law about levirate marriage, which says that when a married man dies childless, his surviving brother must marry his widow in order to provide her with a child. (She can also release him from this obligation by performing the ceremony of chalitzah, as described extensively in Tractate Yevamot.)

When it comes to levirate marriage, the daughters of Zelophehad pointed out, sons and daughters have equal legal status. If a man dies without sons but leaves daughters behind, his brother is not obligated in levirate marriage; evidently, daughters are considered sufficient to carry on the family line, even though they will go on to get married and leave their father’s household. “If we are considered like a son, give us an inheritance like a son,” the daughters of Zelophehad argued to Moses; “if not, our mother should enter into levirate marriage.” This line of reasoning persuaded Moses to bring the matter to the Lord, who sided with the daughters.

What the Gemara does not point out, but struck me as remarkable, is that the Torah portion that lays out the rule for levirate marriage comes in Deuteronomy, while the story of Zelophehad’s daughters is in Numbers, which of course precedes Deuteronomy in the Five Books of Moses. In other words, the rabbis envision Moses possessing a complete Torah while the events the Torah recounts are still taking place. While he is wandering the wilderness, in Numbers, he can consult the law code he will not actually deliver to the Israelites until years later, in Deuteronomy.

This seems nonsensical, but it follows inevitably from the rabbis’ view of the Torah as the eternal center of Jewish life. For them, being Jewish means reading and expounding the Torah; how, then, could Moses, the greatest Jew of all, not have been a Torah scholar? Indeed, at other places in the Talmud, the rabbis even envision the patriarchs studying the Torah, hundreds of years before it was given. Of course, this creates serious logical problems of the kind we now associate with time-travel stories. For instance, if Moses received the entire written Torah on Sinai, he would be able to read in advance about his own death, outside the Promised Land, as a punishment for striking the rock at Meribah. If so, why wouldn’t he have avoided striking the rock, thus changing the course of his life—and falsifying the Torah narrative? I have no doubt that Jewish tradition has answers for such questions; but the Talmud’s implicit assumption that Moses was at once the writer of the Torah and a reader of the Torah remains strange, almost eerie.

The discussion of the daughters of Zelophehad leads the rabbis to consider a biblical conundrum. When the Children of Israel arrived in Canaan, how was the land divided up among them? The Torah offers two apparently contradictory accounts. In Numbers 26, we read about how Moses ordered a census of the Israelites according to clan and tribe and instructed that the land should be divided among them. One verse says that this should take place “according to the names of the tribes of their fathers”; in the Talmud’s understanding, this means that the land would be “divided among those who left Egypt.” But a different verse says the land should be divided “unto these”: that, to the Israelites who had just been enumerated in the census.

The problem is that the Israelites who departed from Egypt in the Exodus were not the same people who arrived in the Land of Israel forty years later. In fact, the whole reason for the 40 years of wandering was to allow time for the generation of the Exodus to die out. God decreed this as a punishment for the people’s lack of trust, as revealed in the episode of the spies, in Numbers 13-14. When Moses’s spies returned from Canaan reporting that the inhabitants were huge and frightening, the Israelites began lamenting that they had ever left Egypt. God, infuriated by the Israelites not for the first time, wanted to wipe them out immediately; but Moses persuaded him not to. Instead, God decreed that the Exodus generation would perish, and their children would inherit the Land.

How, then, do the rabbis explain the two verses? Was the land divided among the Israelites who left Egypt, and then their portions were inherited by their children, as the daughters of Zelophehad inherited his property? Or was the land divided among the Israelites who actually entered the land? The two methods would have very different results: notably, the first would disadvantage families that produced many children in the wilderness. If a man left Egypt and had five sons while in the desert, those five brothers would have to divide one share of the land of Israel between them. Meanwhile, another man who produced only one son in the desert would bequeath him an undivided share. If, however, the division was made according to the number of people who actually entered the land, the five sons of the first Israelite and the one son of the second Israelite would each receive equal portions.

The rabbis offer ingenious solutions to this problem. According to Rabbi Yonatan, “this inheritance is different from all other inheritances in the world, for in all other inheritances in the world the living inherit from the dead, but here, the dead inherit from the living.” In other words, the Gemara explains in a complicated parable, the land was first divided among the living Israelites who entered it. Then these shares were retroactively transferred to their dead ancestors who had left Egypt at the time of the Exodus. And finally, the living Israelites “inherited” the land from these ancestors, dividing it according to the laws of inheritance. This was effectively a way of remedying the injustice done to families with many children. It is also a legal fiction, needed for the rabbis to explain how two contradictory Torah verses are both valid. Here is a perfect example of the way the Torah’s ambiguity spurs the rabbis of the Talmud to feats of ingenious interpretation.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.