He had no sons, and the daughters feared that their inheritance would be lost if they married men from other tribes.
The story is today’s Maftir. The five daughters – Machlah, Tirtzah, Choglah, Milkah and No’ah – married “their father’s brothers’ sons” so that “their inheritance remained in the tribe of the family of their father” (Num. 36:11-12; cf. 27:1-7).
Do we know anything about their father as a person in his own right?
The women assured Moses that their father was a respectable person who took no part in Korach’s revolt against Moses and Aaron (Num. 27:3).
The sages deduce also (Bava Batra 18b) that he was not one of those who “murmured” about the hardships of the wilderness (Num. 11:1) or amongst those who heeded the pessimistic report of the spies (Num. 14:1). But a problem is presented by the daughters’ statement that “he died in his own sin” (Num. 27:3).
It is possible that this simply means that his was a normal death, but the rabbis were more inclined to take the words literally.
Ibn Ezra suggested that it was his own sin that prevented him from having sons. Rabbi Akiva thought he was the man who was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).
Rabbi Yehudah ben B’tera believed that after the episode of the twelve spies, Tzelofchad was amongst those who “presumed to climb the hill” (Num. 14:44).
His name possibly derives from tzel pachad, “in the shadow of fear”, maybe because he was afraid his daughters would never marry; indeed the sages remark that even the youngest was over 40 when the inheritance question was settled and the daughters eventually married.