The Torah’s listing of the laws of the inheritance are quite brief, a mere four lines (Numbers 27:8-11): “If a man dies with no sons, then his inheritance goes to his daughter(s). If he has no daughter(s), then the inheritance goes to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then the inheritance goes to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, then the inheritance goes to the closest kin of the family, and he will possess it.”
Judaism as a religion is passed down through the matrilineal line (traditionally, one is Jewish if one’s mother is Jewish), however one’s tribal identity is patrilineal. When a couple marries, the woman’s tribal alliance transfers to her husband’s tribe. For this reason, it was not in the best interest of the tribes for women to inherit land.
Before any inheritance could be distributed to the heirs, the wife of the deceased was apportioned an allowance for her own upkeep or given a lump sum distribution as pledged in her marriage contract. A portion was also set aside for living expenses and dowry for any unwed daughters.
As the agricultural/land based society disappeared, it was common to create a more equitable* distribution between sons and daughters through “debts” -- a father would leave a statement indicating that he owed his surviving daughter(s) a specific amount of money to be paid from the estate before the sons divided it.
In our times, the issue of inheritance is complex because one must fulfill both the halachic laws of inheritance and the legal laws of one’s country of residence. It is therefore of great importance to not only prepare a will, but to do so with the assistance of a person knowledgeable in both civil and Torah law.
*The distribution of a double portion to the eldest son is a separate issue.
Tomorrow is the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz. For more information on this fast, please see the National Jewish Outreach Program's 17th of Tammuz webpage.