Monday, August 08, 2005

Off Topic: On Menashe's Problem

This past week's parsha had an interesting little incident at the end of it that warrants some discussion.

The leaders of Menashe were concerned over the fact that Tzelofchad's daughters would be inheriting land in the Land of Israel. If they should marry out of the tribe, the leaders of Menashe argued, their portions would eventually pass to their children, who would be members of other tribes, which would diminish thier own tribal area. Moshe agreed and decreed that any daughter who inherits land must marry within her father's tribe.

This incident, however, raises several questions:
1. What, exactly, were the leaders of Menashe worried about? It certainly wasn't about population -- they weren't concerned about any of their daughters marrying out of the tribe, but rather land. But, were Tzelofchad the only person among the Jews who didn't have any sons? I would think not. In reality, there were probably plenty of people who had only daugters (or other female heirs) from all the tribes. So, so what if Machla married someone from Zevulun? Certainly, in the end, it would all average out anyway.

2. While Menashe's complaint sounds like one that would apply down through the ages, for some reason, it didn't. The requirement that an inheriting daughter marry within her tribe only applied to that generation. Later generations were not bound by this requirement, and yet, even so, the same logic should apply. So, why didn't this requirement carry onward?

3. Of course, even if the requirement to marry within the tribe did carry on, it still wouldn't prevent the "problem" of "islands" of territory within one tribe belonging to another tribe. After all, there were, no doubt, situations, where a married daughter (possibly even with children already belonging to another tribe) finds herself an heiress after the death of her brother.

So, in any event, it seems that there really is no way to prevent this from happening, and after that generation, no effort was made to prevent it. If that's the case, what was the validity of Menashe's claims?

The Wolf


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The Gemara in Taanis (30ish?) says that this was only so that the integrity of the nachalot would still be intact when the Jews entered the land. Apparently that was the concern. Why, you ask? Good question. I guess because it was ultimately impossible to assure tribal integrity as you point out, but at least it all could begin that way.

Once the land was settled, the tribal intermarriage ban was lifted. On what day? 15 Av, which is why that day became one of celebration and joy. We see in Tanakh the attatchment people had to their ancestral land, for example the refusal of Navos to sell his vineyard to Ahab.

Warren said...

I wonder how the system worked out over the long term. Even without intertribal marriage, a number of generations down the line, the size of the portions is going to be very different depending on the number of sons in the family. If I had some idea for how to model families I'd run a computer simulation. Could there be someone with a portion not even large enough to build a house on, let alone no source of income?

And since when there are neither sons nor daughters, the land goes to other relatives, people can still wind up with property in different parts of the tribal territory, even if not in different tribes. And let's say you have to go way up the family tree to find some heirs, and by the time you work down again to living people you have thousands of people? So they all inherit a postage stamp sized portion.

And what happened when more territory was conquered? Did everyone get a share? Or just some people? Well whoever did wound up with two unconnected properties.

Now maybe people could sell (meaning rent until Yovel) one of their plots and buy (meaning...) something near the other one, but

1) it seems from the story of Achav and Nabot that selling ones inhereted property was frowned upon, also in the law of redeeming property in Vayikra it starts by mentioning someone who sells his property because he's poor, implying that otherwise it wouldn't be done. So maybe the difficulty of farming in two different places isn't a reason to sell? On the other hand, maybe you can retain ownership and hire someone to work the land. But you still need to go there sometimes to see how it's working out.

2) It all needs to be renegotiated every Yovel. Maybe you got along well with the person you (or your father) made the deal with 50 years ago, but now one or both sides is now the next generation, maybe you have to chase down a few different heirs, and what if because there are more of them now they're not interested in renewing the deal?

Mis-nagid said...

You're reading the story backwards. It's not a historical event, it's more like a "midrash." The Canaanite tribes that broke off to become Israel weren't really from eponymous sons of Jacob; that's a late-written pious myth designed to bolster the unity of disparate groups by providing a shared origin story. A critical reading of Tanakh shows how the tribes slowly developed and joined over time, i.e. realistic Judges vs. ahistorical Joshua. There are even remnants of a different tribes list in the oldest texts, for example shiras devorah.

What the story reflects is the anxiety of the already existing demographics that were joining up to form Israel. They already had "their" land, and the rules for how the newly sanctioned intertribal marriage created by the forming of Israel would affect that were not clear. This anxiety was allayed by casting the ameliorative ruling back into the mythical past. "There's no need to worry about losing your land when you join Israel, Moses already had that covered."

You need to read the stories in the context of the people who wrote them and their era, not in the context of the mythology they created. You can't be a Torah scholar if you believe it was written by a god any more than you can be an Egyptologist if you believe the pyramids were made by an alien, and no aspiring student of Greek history can proceed with the assumption that the Zeus really did rule Mount Olympus. Books are written by humans, and they are what we can learn about by reading them.