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In biblical times, polygamy was permitted. The Bible, in tolerating polygamy, gives evidence that the practice had long been an accepted social institution when these laws were written down. In the patriarchal age polygamy is regarded as an unquestioned custom. While the Bible gives a reason for the action of Abraham in taking Hagar for an additional wife and, in the case of Jacob, for having Rachel as a wife besides Leah, it only proves that polygamy as well as concubinage, with which it was always associated, was among the mores of the ancient Hebrew people (Gen. 16:1-4; 29:23-28). The same attitude is revealed in the episode of Abimelech and Sarah (Gen. 20:1- l3).
Polygamy was such a well established part of the social system that Mosaic law is not even critical of it. We find only certain regulations with respect to it; as, for example, if a man takes a second wife the economic position of the first wife and of the children she bore must be secure; and, in the case of inheritance, no child of a subsequent marriage is to be preferred over a child from the first wife. Other regulations were that the high priest could have only one wife and that a king in Israel should not have too many wives (Lev. 21:13; Deut. 17:17; Ex. 21:10). The last injunction, however, was of no effect. David had seven wives before he began to reign in Jerusalem, and an extraordinary number of wives and concubines has been attributed to Solomon (II Sam 3:2- 5, 14; 5:13). In connection with David, the prophet Nathan did not denounce the king for adding Uriah's wife to those he already had but for the means he employed to secure her (II Sam. 12:7-15).
However, if polygamy was not forbidden it was not directly sanctioned. It was a heritage from the past and it was left undisturbed. As the civilization of the people reached a higher form and, especially under the teaching of the prophets, their moral and religious consciousness developed, the polygamous system gradually declined. This is noticeable in Israel after the return from the Exile. We know that it survived into the Second Commonwealth, as evidenced in Christian writings (for why else would Jesus refer to the practice). You can find some references to these writings at http://www.christian-thinktank.com/polygame.html.
According to the Talmud the right to a plurality of wives is conceded, but the number of legitimate wives, as in the Koran, is limited to four. The taking of additional wives is held as sufficient ground for divorce for a woman who had previously been the sole wife. Where a polygamous union exists, provision must be made for adequate maintenance of each wife as well as a separate domicile. Throughout the Talmudic age not one rabbi is known to have had more than one wife. Monogamy was held to be the only ideal legal union; plurality of wives was a concession to time and condition. At a later period Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah maintains, contrary to his personal opinion, that polygamous unions from a strictly legal point of view are permissible.
About the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah issued an edict (Herem de-Rabbenu Gershom) which was considered authoritative among Ashkenazi Jews. This edict substantially prohibited plural marriage. One exception was allowed: A man could marry more than one wife if he obtained the special permission of 100 rabbis in 3 countries. Originally, Gershom's ban was limited in time to the year 1260, however it has continued to be accepted by Jews of Europe and the Western World to this day. Rabbi Gershom's edict was followed less in sephardic countries: cases of polygamy were found in Spain as late as the 14th cent. That such cases were not rare may be inferred from the fact that in the Spanish communities the Ketubah, the document marking the betrothal, exacted that the man was not to take a second wife. The Islamic influence on the Jews in Spain was more or less pronounced until the expulsion at the end of the 15th cent.
Nowadays, technically, polygamy is permitted among non-Ashkenazi (non-Northern European tradition) Jews and Ashkenazi Jews who obtain special permission of 100 rabbis (as in the case of (G-d forbid) a wife who becomes incapacitated). However, this is largely an academic question, because:
Most Jews live in countries that ban polygamy by civil law.
Most Jews still follow Rabenu Gershom's edict that banned polygamy.
Yeminite Jews are a distinct case, being neither Ashkenazi or Sephardi. The Yemenite Jews were isolated from all Jewish people from the time of their exile in the middle of the first Temple period until recently. Yeminite Jews do not follow Rabbi Gersonm's edict, and believe that in some cases, the Torah even requires polygamy. An example cited is the case of "yebum", in which a man's brother dies and he must marry his wife, even if he is married already. As a result, some Yemenite Jews still take plural wives.
Note: The Sephardic community in Israel has its own ban on performing polygamous marriages in Israel. In Israel, some Yemenites who came with more than one wife, still have them (including the last wave of immigration).
The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.
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Daniel P. Faigin <email@example.com>