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Does Jewish Law Forbid Polygamy?

Does Jewish Law Forbid Polygamy?


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.


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.


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


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


Responsa of Maharam Schick, Even ha-Ezer 4.


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


Mishkenot Yaakov ibid.


Responsa She’eilat Yaavetz 2:15.

Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Discussion (44)
September 19, 2016
Maximum Number of Wives?
Before the ban on polygamy what was the upper limit of wives? Was it four (as in Islam) or was it unlimited (Herod had 10 wives and Solomon had many more).
Fun Fact
The pre-islamic arabs practiced polyandry: it was called Nikah Ijtima
September 8, 2016
so if i do take another wife in america what could happen to me ?
July 19, 2016
Two Mothers in Law
Avraham was nomadic, May not have had contact with Mothers in Law. In modern times, much more likely. While Jewish men may be able to care for more than one wife, can he be strong enough for 2 mothers in law?
Shmuel (Alan) Stone
Portland, OR
June 10, 2016
The truth is that the Torah has no evidence of the prohibition of polygamy. However, there is a clear evidence of the prohibition of polyandry. The law says do not covet after your neighbor's wife (meaning no man should marry or even desire to have an already married woman), but not do not covet your neighbor's husband (so it is not unlawful if a single woman desires or marries a married man).
A. E. George.
March 17, 2016
References lacking
No mention of Moses, is he not worth considering? As I understand, Moses had two or more wives, only two are named.
Moses wrote the Will and Word of the Lord on this subject as on others. No prohibition on Polygamy; rather there were requirements laid on the man who has more than one living wife.
Wives are (to an extent) like wars: one at a time works best in most cases. Focused attention is needed.
Reading, Pa, USA.
November 18, 2015
Indeed, this passage of the Talmud is somewhat troubling, and various explanations have been given. Below is one such explanation, which seems to be the most tenable:

It was the custom of nobility in those days to treat respected guests with various pleasures, often involving prostitution. See Talmud Avodah Zarah 76b and Avot D'R' Nattan 15 where such incidents are recorded. In order to prevent being put in such a compromising situation, these Rabbis would make as if they had gotten married the day that they arrived in these cities. This way the Emperor or Governor would know not to offer them such pleasures.
Shaul Wolf
November 4, 2015
Please explain:
When Rav would visit the city of Darshish, he would announce: “Who will be mine for a day?” And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: “Who will be mine for a day?” —B. Yoma 18b
July 29, 2015
Thankful for the deep insight ... Banned and not woman ever was mentioned having 2! How does one ever find the time or 100 teachers...I find your writing style skillful and nourishing...May You be Blessed to receive even greater inspired Insight...פותחיאל
Hawaiian Islands
January 1, 2015
it's hard to do.
It's hard enough to cook & clean, then scrub out Skid Marks for One man, let alone Multiple Husbands.
Sam Taylor
August 25, 2014
Scripture did not make an issue of the two wives of Lamech who formed the first recorded polygamous family. If we interpret events in Scripture which did not attract disapproval from God as the actual will of God, we can say that Sarah was barren to ensure that Abraham marries more than one living wife in the same house, the rebellion of Hagar notwithstanding. Abraham did not manage the situation well and that is why we had the story as it is recorded. The same can be said of Jacob and his four wives. Man is supposed to be an absolute manager and controller of his household. If he fails in this divine duty, his wife/wives will take undue advantage of him and cause trouble. Happy homes do not generally mean monogamous homes. The first recorded death in Scripture is fracrticide when there were only four people on Earth! Which means that half the whole world is not even enough for the person intent on evil.
DVC Onuoha
Abuja, Nigeria
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