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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 and his capacity, and equal to any other wives.6 Additionally, the husband must provide separate housing for each wife. Divorce requires involvement of a scribe, 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 declare 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.

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 (39)
July 2, 2015
For Ariella—extenuating circumstances for women as well
Torah allows polygyny—one man, many wives—but not polyandry—one woman, many husbands. So if the woman cannot accept the get, the man may take another wife—with the written consent of 100 rabbinical authorities. But there are no conditions under which a woman can take a second husband.

Halacha is the art of knowing both the scope and the bounds of Torah law. Here, we come up against a wall that doesn't budge.

"G-d is not a tyrant," say the rabbis of the Talmud. The psalmist sings about Torah that "its ways are pleasant paths," and that G-d is "compassionate to all His creatures." In cases such as this, it is sometimes difficult to see the pleasantness and compassion. Faith, yes, understanding—not necessarily.

What can I say? Only that not everything we understand is good for us, and not all that is good for us can be understood.

May G-d soon remove all pain and loneliness from His world, forever.
Tzvi Freeman
July 2, 2015
Why don't you continue with reading in order to convince yourself that it isn't a commandment and later it is expressively said that it is not desired at all. Why do you think that one man is able to fulfill the needs of more women?
Nina Balogh
Budapest
June 30, 2015
Polygamy
So what if a husband is mentally incapacitated, can the wife marry a second husband?
Elaine
June 30, 2015
One is more than enough
Between my medical practice, writing Chassidic poetry, and being a Breslev Reb, I hardly have time for my wife and two boys. Another wife, G-d forbid. You must be a better man than me Rabbi Tzvi, to even think of such a thing. All kidding aside, there are times when having two wives could be a good thing. If disease, or famine were to strike, or wars kill off the men, multiple wives would be necessary. My friend with two young boys and a teenage girl had his wife die young from cancer. My wife is acting as a mother to his daughter, BUT not as a wife to him. We think due to the bond between the two, that his wife's soul is residing inside my wife's body, watching over her daughter. A very special an beautiful thing.
Dr. Harry Hamburger
Miami
June 30, 2015
Polygamy
A question related to polygamy... Our Rabbi recently told me that the Rabbibical ruling against polygamy occured over 1,000 years ago. He added that these edicts need to be renewed after 1,000 years or they become invalid. So... Does that mean, theoretically speaking, that polygamy is now allowed?
Anonymous
amite louisiana
June 30, 2015
Finally! someone who chose to be politically incorrect! Polygamy is noted in Tanach and serves it's purpose. But it is something that the women of those times understood and agreed to. If that was the case today then there is no problem with Polygamy. If however, you marry your spouse understanding that you will only marry each other there is nothing wrong with that either. To each his own, as long as it is bound by Torah law.
Michelle
Irvine, CA
June 30, 2015
It would make sense to reintroduce it now because there are more females than males in the general population and Ithat might be even more accentuated in the observant Jewish community. There really is a man drought and the idea that your soul mate is out there waiting for you overlooks the fact that to joini all souls split in half you need an equal number of males and females. Polygamy is a wonderful example of Hashem's kindness. Women with big families could surely do with the help, righ?
Ariella
Sydney
June 30, 2015
There is still a tribe in China , which is matriarchal and the woman has a number of husbands. But the husbands and the male children do not live with the women.
The women do all the work on the land etc and supports the family , the village.
It probably started because of a population problem too. It's usually to do with practicality , most people probably think one marriage is enough to contend with.
Anonymous
June 28, 2015
is polygamy legal in israel now?!
fateme
June 24, 2015
Extenuanting 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" in that case is "vital"? What if the husband becomes mentally ill? Following your line specially the woman that can't provide should be able to remarry no?
Ariella
Miami
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