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Why does Torah law allow polygamy?

Why does Torah law allow polygamy?

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Just to magnify your question somewhat, you'll note that Torah presents the original paradigm of marriage – that of Adam and Eve – as monogamous. Furthermore, virtually every instance of polygamy recounted in the Torah is related directly by the narrative to some sort of calamity—whether strife between competing wives, as was the case with Hannah and Peninah,1 or between rivaling half-siblings, e.g. Jacob's2 and King David's sons.3 Even the very verse4 in which the Torah provides a green light for polygamy frames it within an undesirable circumstance: "If a man will have two wives, one beloved and the other hated..."

Why then make room for trouble? If the ideal union of man and woman is an exclusive one, why should a "nation of priests and a holy people" compromise?

The simple answer is that Torah deals with life on earth, and the gamut of social life and human experience over all of history and world geography is too diverse to be restricted to one narrow ideal. Take, for example, an agrarian society whose male population has been decimated by war. How are women to survive and how is the population to replenish itself without the mechanism of polygamy? Similarly, a man married to a barren woman who could not produce sons to help in the field and defend the fort would find himself ill put to survive in those times. In an exclusively monogamous society, his wife would find her position insecure. Although, in normative circumstances, being "only one of many" compromises a woman's value as a person, in these situations a permit for polygamy is a form of compassion.

The only case of a polygamous rabbi recorded in the Talmud5 provides an excellent illustration: Rabbi Tarfon married 300 women. Why? Because there was a famine in the land. But Rabbi Tarfon had plenty of food, since he was a Kohen and received the priestly tithes. The wife of a Kohen is also permitted to eat those tithes. Those 300 women were very happy that the Torah permitted polygamy.

Torah discourages abuse of this permit—not just by recounting the calamitous narratives mentioned above, but also by placing requirements on the husband. For every extra wife, no matter how lowly her status, a man must provide "food, clothing and conjugal rights" commensurate to her needs, his capacity and equal to any other wives.6 Additionally, the husband must provide separate housing for each wife. Divorce requires involvement of the scribes, and the sages later instituted the ketubah as a further impediment of divorce. (See also Why is Jewish Marriage so One-Sided?) We see that these means were in fact effective, polygamy in Jewish circles was historically a rare exception.

Rare, but necessary nevertheless. Even when Rabbi Gershom and his Rabbinical Court assembled to create a ban on polygamy due to the conditions of their time (see previous link for more on this injunction), they nevertheless left the door open for extenuating circumstances. That loophole has proven vital in many an instance—for example, the case of a wife who has become (G‑d forbid) mentally incapacitated and is not halachically qualified to receive a divorce.

You may wish to think of Torah as the DNA of a highly resilient organism called the Jewish People. Whenever circumstances change, this organism looks back into its DNA and finds some code that allows for an adaptive modality. There's plenty off limits, but there is enough leeway to provide for every situation human life on planet earth can throw at you. Proof is, we've been through it all – nomadic, agrarian, civilized, industrial, technological – and in every part of the world, and we're still here, strong as ever.

FOOTNOTES
1.

I Samuel ch. 1.

2.

Genesis ch. 37.

3.

e.g. I Kings ch. 1.

4.

Deuteronomy 21:15.

5.

Jerusalem Talmud, Yevamot 4:12.

6.

Exodus 21:10; Maimoindes, Laws of Marriage 14:3.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
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Discussion (23)
July 21, 2013
I absolutely loved the post and agree with it! Who am I to say the Word of G-d is wrong and that polygamy goes against G-d's law.

When we look at Hannah and Peninah, why were they competing? Because Hannah could not have children, and Peninah could. Rachel and Leah? Jacob love Rachel more than he loved Leah.

I truly believe that it is possible for a husband to have two wives and everyone gets along and everyone is loved and happy! Period. And the fact that G-d does not forbid it shows that polygamy, when done His way, is holy!
Victoria
April 17, 2013
Marriage is the union of the Male and Female
The flaw is in the way we have separated 'sex' from 'marriage'. These two, sex and marriage, are one and the same thing. The moment we realize this, the quicker things fall into place, and the easier it becomes to understand why God is not, and can not be, against plural marriage.
Marriage is the joining of the male and the female (which is what we now call sex),..note: Male and Female, and not Man and Woman...not Husband and wife, but male and female.
God did not create a Man and a Woman in the beginning. Instead, He created just one Man, then MADE two version out of that Man, a male version and a female version. So when the male version joins himself to the female version, logically, they become one flesh, a combination of the male and the female versions. This combination or joining or union is what we call intercourse or marriage.
What blinds us to this truth is our obsession with the titles, Man and Woman, or Husband and Wife. God only sees one Man. Gen 5: 1 and 2.
Jack
Zambia
July 14, 2012
HOUSING WIVES NOT REQUIRED
Providing housing was never a requirement for a husband according to Torah. Only 3 things were required of the husband in Torah. The author added housing and it is not there.

Remember, the wife had her own tent. I am wondering where you found reason to state that the husband is required to provide housing for his wives. My rabbi has taught me that this was not a requirement.
Kahena
Los Angeles, CA
December 30, 2010
Polygamy
Polygamy does not lead to population growth, as some suggested, since the number of births is limited by the number that women can bear. It does not matter whether the number of fathers impregnating the women is 100 or 100 million, the number of mothers remains the same. Polygamy does affect the quality of the offspring, inasmuch as only "kings" can father many children with multiple wifes. This we see in the Torah, and the reason that polygamy is endorsed.
Kashian
New York, USA
June 24, 2010
David
I totally agree with you! Although the point the article is trying to make is that polygamy might often come at the expense of a close devotion to and happiness with one's spouse, or jealousy and strife between the wives, I think it would be up to the women to decide whether to be an "additional" wife or not.

It is a clear precept of the Torah, that what is not forbidden, is allowed. In polygamy, we even have historic examples from our historic Israeli kings and authorities.
Yashar
Brookly,, NY
June 4, 2010
Does rabbi's wisdom excel G-d and Torah?
I've been reading this thread of comments and it appears to me that the rabbis (apparently) believe they know better than G-d who gave the Torah. In Torah we are told "not to add to or take away from what is written" (Deut 4:2 compare Deut 12:32). History testifies against us that each time we stray from Torah G-d punishes us or calamity results. For whatever reason G-d made provision for polygamy; it is not our place to change any of those Laws He gave us. Whether it be a means to outnumber our enemies, or merely for individual preference, there is surely a good reason why G-d provided the enforcement (Exodus 21:10) some wish to dismiss or worse, disallow.
David
Naples, FL
February 24, 2009
Amazed
I am amazed with such words of the Torah. Being a Chinese (Gentile), I never expected that Jews also practice polygamy, but at a cause.

I find that Jewish polygamy is much more established, having laws to prevent misusing the words of G-d for one's personal gain. Chinese emperors that had 3000 wives, were more of a shame to the Chinese empire than a blessing.

Since Jewish polygamy is an effort to keep the Tribes of Israel existing, I think it should be the attitude of one man when desiring to have more wives. One should not have many wives for the sake of pleasure.

Jewish law has really amazed me (it is far more different than other religions). As a student in Religious Studies, I'd like to be updated on the latest interpretations of the meaning of the Torah.
Melvin Cheong
Malaysia
December 8, 2008
Impressive View
I have not ceased to be impressed with Jewish wisdom concerning matters. I think this view is the more reasonable view for all things concerned. G-d is truley great in his wisdom.
Anonymous
USA
December 1, 2008
RE: Sergey's demographic startegy
Dear Yosef,

I am in total agreement with you, welcome and embrace your explanation. However, I have doubts that even if polygamy would be allowed it does not mean that it would have become widely accepted, and even if it would - I have big doubts that we have a chance to catch up with Arabs a Muslims. It seems to me, they are far ahead of the game.

I would be happy to hear your vision how existance of Israel could be secured in 25-50 years, when Arabs - citizens of Israel! - become majority. In this case state of Israel will be lost because we did not find solution.

Also, we both assume from our current positions that family values would be jeaopardised! With the current state of mind in the society - probably they would. But aren't we forgetting that we are dealing with Jewish ingenuity and inventiveness? After all, if Rabbinical court at least consider this issue may be they would find a reasons how to make it fare, balanced and not create conflicts in the society or family
Sergey
Fair Lawn, NJ
December 1, 2008
Polygamy
As a now famous person put it, because of the hardness of our hearts, Moses allowed it, but from the beginning of creation G-d made them male and female and the two shall become one flesh.

G-d allows the hardness of our hearts to interfere with His plan...He allowed the choosing of King even when it went against His design.
Chris
murfreesboro, tn
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