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Does Jewish Law Forbid Polygamy?

Does Jewish Law Forbid Polygamy?

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The Torah does not forbid a man from having multiple wives. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon are notable examples of biblical figures who wedded more than one wife.

A close reading, however, reveals that in virtually all cases where our forefathers took multiple wives, it was for a specific reason. Abraham married Hagar only after Sarah suggested that he do so because she and Abraham had no children together. Another classic example is Jacob. He married Leah only because he was tricked into it by Laban. Similarly, he took Bilhah and Zilpah at the advice of his first two wives, who wished to bear children through them.

Yet the Torah does not outlaw polygamy.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the noted German scholar Rabbi Gershom “the Light of the Diaspora” banned polygamy.1 This ban was accepted as law by all Ashkenazic Jews, but was not recognized by Sephardic and Yemenite communities.

Practically speaking, polygamy is almost nonexistent today even amongst Sephardic Jews, due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of them live in societies where polygamy is not legally and/or socially acceptable.

A number of reasons are given for Rabbi Gershom’s ban:

  • It was instituted to prevent people from taking advantage of their wives.2
  • It was intended to avoid potential infighting between rival wives,3 which may also lead to the transgression of a number of biblical violations.4
  • Rabbi Gershom was concerned lest the husband be unable to provide properly for all his wives (especially during the difficult times of exile).5
  • The ban is intended to avoid the inherent rivalry and hatred between rival wives
  • There is a concern that a man may marry two wives in different locations, which may lead to forbidden relationships between offspring.6
  • While it has been suggested that it was adopted from Christian practice and laws, to avoid Christian attacks against Jews who act otherwise,7 this argument has been assailed by many other halachic authorities.

As far as Jewish thought is concerned, it would seem that polygamy is not, and never was, an ideal state. The mystical works are replete with references to husband and wife being two halves of one whole. Interestingly, I’ve never encountered an episode in the Talmud or Midrash—which predate Rabbi Gershom’s ban on polygamy—which involves a polygamous family. While it is certainly possible that such stories do exist, it is quite apparent that polygamy was never the norm.

Practically speaking as well, polygamy is a big financial strain, as the husband is required to provide for all the needs of, as well as separate housing for, two households.

In all probability, polygamy was always considered a last-resort option for men who were married to barren women and who wished to have children without divorcing the wives they loved. Monarchs also routinely used polygamy to cement relationships with different tribal factions and families.

FOOTNOTES
1.

There is a loophole in this ban, allowing a man to marry a second wife under certain extenuating circumstances—for example, if the wife’s deteriorated mental condition renders her halachically incapable of receiving a Jewish divorce. In such an instance, a dispensation signed by 100 rabbis is necessary, and the husband must place the amount of money promised in the ketubah (marriage contract) in an escrow account, in the event that conditions will one day allow the wife to receive the divorce.

2.

Maharik in the name of Rashba, cited in Darchei Moshe, Even ha-Ezer 1:10.

3.

Mordechai, Ketubot 291, cited in Darchei Moshe ibid. 1:12.

4.

Responsa of Maharam Schick, Even ha-Ezer 4.

5.

Responsa of Maharam mi-Padua, 14; Responsa Mishkenot Yaakov, 1.

6.

Mishkenot Yaakov ibid.

7.

Responsa She’eilat Yaavetz 2:15.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife Chaya Mushka and their three children.
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Discussion (32)
December 5, 2013
Hafoch Ba D'Kula Ba
The Mishnah and Talmud refers to a co-wife as a "tzarah" which literally means "difficulty". Commentaries explain the use of this term for this type of relationship comes from the fact that two women married to one man is usually a very difficult situation.

So why does the Torah allow polygamy?

The Torah addresses reality (cf. the parsha of "aishes y'fas to'ar" in Parshas Ki Seitzei). For most of history, polygamy may have been a practical solution to real-life circumstances.

Here's how:

Until the last few hundred years, women were not able to be as good breadwinners as men. In addition -- or maybe as a result of men dying from being "out there" traveling and doing dangerous jobs -- there may also have been many more women than men. Allowing one man to marry -- and support -- more than one woman helped with society's responsibility to make sure that everyone was cared for.

Secular society's move away polygamy over time-until today-bears out Rabbeinu Gershom's foresight..
Pinny
NY
June 7, 2013
polygamy
In the beginning God created man and then woman. It seems sufficient to say that God did not created man and two + women for the man.

So I think polygamy is not a natural state for a man to live in. A marriage between one man and one woman becomes spiritually one.

It's easy to say that there is no rule against polygamy and that is truthful, but not necessarily God's best plan for man.

As for Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon each story reveals how much grief, anger and resentment were in those households. Could it be that God was showing what happen when we do not obey His commands?
Anonymous
Arizona
June 6, 2013
The principal reason for the Ashkenazic ban on polygamy was because the Christian host nations would not stand for it. A modern counterpart was the Christian persecution of Mormons in the USA in the 19 th centruy and the denial of statehood for Utah until the Mormons banned polygamy.
Moslem nations did not find Jewish polygamy objectionable because Islam adopted polygamy from Judaism.
Ron Stackler
Malibu
June 6, 2013
Apologetics
Attempting to explain away - what is a distasteful aspect of Jewish history is not useful. Better to admit that polygamy was a well accepted part of Judaism- but which is now out-of-favour and unacceptable. There is no need for apologetics. Any "religion" that tolerates polygamy is to be condemned as being the savagery if represents - such as islumm..
Avraham
June 6, 2013
Leah vs. Rachel
I know that Judaism likens Rachel to be the spiritual mother of Jews. However, I have always thought that Leah was the better of the two precisely because she wasn't loved, but was dutiful, not rejecting her husband for his lack of love, and carrying Jacob's children in her womb.
Craig Hamilton
Sandwich, MA
June 6, 2013
Correction
I meant Moshe's father married his aunt, which is a Torah prohibition.
anon
Israel
June 5, 2013
Forgive my ignorance but I'm confused. Didn't ramban say that we can't add to the Halacha? What was the difference with what rabbi Gershom did
Anonymous
London
June 4, 2013
polygamy
Polygamy has been used in the U.S., by Native Americans, if someone was an above average provider. Among Mormons, early intent was to provide husbands for widowed or single women in crisis conditions. It has tended to be short-term practice being very difficult on the majority of those involved.

Past and fairly recent Government and social persecution has made the rare practice often a miserable one, of hiding people, hiding corruption/no justice, inducing poor educattion and living standards. People have even drawn away wives, instead of backing good families.

In Mexico, a polygamous area has evolved to mostly non-polygamous decendants.

It can be a crucible for more rapid evolution, compassion. There is some evidence in Utah that the polygamists have branches of: sound; controlled; corrupt practice.

Polygamy very rapidly damages a gene pool, due to related people/group marrying. Gene pools are a lot smaller than we realize, by strata, local.

Anonymous
Manti, UT
June 4, 2013
Genesis clearly gives the holy intent for marriage- one man and one woman. While G-d tolerated the social custom of polygamy, it was never the original plan. The stories of those who took multiple wives show us the serious problems which the practice caused. It has left us a lesson about adopting society's customs rather than living G-d's plan.
CSL
Ohio
June 4, 2013
Anything that happened before matan Torah is not a basis for halacha. Avraham served his guests milk and meat, Moshe married his aunt and Yaakov married two sisters. All of which are forbidden. David and Shlomo were kings, and different halacha applied to them. So none of these are really models.

The men who get all excited about the idea never stop to think that in a polygamous society some men have several wives, whilst others have none. One of the reasons that Muslim society is so war oriented is on account of all the frustrated surplus single men. Futhermore, polygamy creates many social problems and is generally a sign of backward, undeveloped societies. One of the reasons for the lack of development, is because the men, who in monogamous societies work, act, invent and create, can gain property and prestige through marrying several women, and do not need to engage in productive activity.
anon
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