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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 (35)
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
August 25, 2014
Evidence from Scripture Supports Polygamy as the Wish Of God for Man.
Polygamy and Monogamy are contentious issues which aught not have been so. While we may concede that God created only Adam and Eve, and the human race spread from their seed, it is not sufficient evidence to advance Monogamy as the wish of God. I feel that the reason for sprouting the human race from one source is to enable man to regard his neighbour as a brother or sister. If God had given more than one wife to Adam, Eve would have been on her own after she was tricked by Satan and the story of the Bible as we know it today would have been different. The big question from Scriptural events is this? Did God create Adam or man to be monogamous? The truth is NO. The injunction of God is "increase and multiply and fill the Earth". When man decided to adopt satanic wisdom and go against this injunction by building a tower at Babel, God confused their tongues giving rise to the numerous languages we now have on Earth.
DVC Onuoha
July 16, 2014
Gay swans of some subspecies do that: allow a female just to produce offspring with her... like Jews mentioned(any any other people who go into polygamy just to reproduce). But in case of these swans the males kick the female out of their nest and raise the young in two - the female doesn't ruin anything and is not part of their lives. But they are animals, incapable of love, why humans commit such a primitive behaviour as allowing someone else to ruin their unity?
Loe means consequent monogamy!
Europe
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
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