Tag Archives: Flood

The Priests and the Aftermath of the Golden Calf

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, most famous for its account of the Golden Calf incident. Last year, we addressed some of the major questions surrounding the Golden Calf, including who exactly instigated the catastrophe, why it was done in that particular way, and the mystical reasons behind it. Another set of questions arises from the way Moses dealt with the incident. We read how Moses first had the Golden Calf ground up and mixed with water, a mixture that the populace was forced to drink. Then, he called on the perpetrators to be killed by sword. Finally, God sent an additional plague as punishment for the incident. What is the significance of these three measures?

Priestly Procedure

Rashi comments on Exodus 32:20 that Moses “intended to test them like women suspected of adultery”. This refers to the sotah procedure, described in Numbers 5:11-31, where a woman who may have committed adultery is brought before the priests and tested by having her drink a special mixture of “holy water”. If she is guilty, she would die immediately; if innocent, she would be blessed. Moses did the same by grinding the Golden Calf into a special mixture and having the people drink it. This would identify those who were guilty of idolatry. The symbolism is clear: in the same way that the adulteress cheats on her husband, the Israelites at Sinai “cheated” on God.

Rashi further explains that this procedure was only to identify those who had worshipped the Calf secretly, without any witnesses. However, there were those who had worshipped the Calf openly and publicly. Deuteronomy 13:13-18 states that the punishment for such open displays of idolatry—assuming the idolaters had been given a clear warning—is death by sword. It was these people (three thousand of them) who were killed in this particular way.

The last group were those who had worshipped the Calf openly, but were not given a warning. In Jewish law, the death penalty is not meted out unless the perpetrators were given a clear explanation of their sin and were explicitly warned about the consequences beforehand. Since this last group of people worshipped the Calf openly, but without a warning, they could not be punished. In such cases, it is up to the Heavens to dole out justice. This is why they were punished with a plague.

Priestly Origins

Rashi’s comments come from the Talmud (Yoma 66b), which also provides us with an alternate explanation for the three types of punishment. Those that were most involved in the idolatry—sacrificing animals and burning incense to the Golden Calf—died by sword. Those who merely “embraced and kissed” the Calf died by plague. And those who only “rejoiced in their hearts” and worshipped the Calf in secret died by drinking the mixture.

The same page of Talmud reminds us that the entire tribe of Levi did not participate in the sin. The Sages explain that this is why the Levites were elevated to the status of priests. Prior to the Golden Calf, it was the firstborn male of every family that was supposed to ascend to the priesthood. After the Calf, the Levites were designated as the priestly class, with the descendants of Aaron serving as the kohanim, the high priests. For this reason, a firstborn male must be “redeemed” from a kohen in a special ceremony known as pidyon haben thirty days (or more) after his birth.

Illustration depicting Moses commanding the Levites at the Golden Calf, from ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ by Persian-Jewish sage Rashid-al-Din (1247-1308)

Priestly Exceptions

Having said that, we do see a number of exceptions to this rule. Pinchas was a Levite who was elevated to kohen status after his actions brought an end to the immoral affair with the Midianites. He would go on to become the kohel gadol, the High Priest, and hold that position longer than anyone else—over 300 years according to certain opinions!

Another exception was the prophet Samuel. His barren mother, Hannah, promised that if God would give her a child, she would make the child a nazir (loosely translated as “monk”) from birth and dedicate him to the priesthood. After Samuel was weaned, Hannah—considered a prophetess in her own right—left him under the tutelage of the High Priest Eli. The Tanakh tells us that Eli’s own two sons, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas above) were “base men who did not know God” (I Samuel 2:12), and it appears that Samuel filled the void they left, for he “served before Hashem, a youth girded with a linen ephod” (2:18). The ephod was one of the special vestments worn only by the kohanim, as described in last week’s parasha. Despite Samuel being from the tribe of Ephraim, it appears he became a full member of the priesthood. So great was he that Psalms 99:6 famously equates Samuel with Moses (a Levite) and Aaron (a kohen) combined.

In fact, long before Aaron we read how Melchizedek was a “kohen to God” who came to bless Abraham (Genesis 14:18). Melchizedek is identified with Shem, the son of Noah (appropriately his firstborn son, according to many opinions). He was the first person in history to serve as a proper priest, offering sacrifices to God upon an altar upon exiting the Ark following the Great Flood (see Beresheet Rabbah 30:6).

Finally, the Talmud (Sukkah 52a) speaks of a certain “righteous priest” who is one of the four messianic figures prophesied by Zechariah. While Mashiach himself is said to be from the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, there are a number of perplexing sources speaking of Mashiach being a kohen! In fact, there are only four places in the entire Torah where the word mashiach (משיח) actually appears. All four cases are in reference to a kohen, mentioned as hakohen hamashiach. While the simple explanation is that this refers to the “anointed” priest, ie. the High Priest, the deeper meaning suggests that Mashiach himself is somehow a kohen.*

In reality, this isn’t so hard to understand. After all, when Mashiach comes everything will revert to the way it was meant to be originally. The sin of the Golden Calf will be rectified, together with all the other tikkunim. Thus, the priesthood will once again belong to the firstborn. And even this will likely be temporary, for God always intended the Jewish people to be a mamlechet kohanim, for each and every Jew to be a priest, as it is written (Exodus 19:5-6):

…If you would but hearken to My voice, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasure among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation…

Courtesy: Temple Institute


*Interestingly, the breakaway sect of priests known as the Essenes—who likely produced the Dead Sea Scrolls—believed in a messianic figure referred to as moreh tzedek, the “Righteous Teacher”. Scholars have suggested this was a high-ranking kohen named Judah who separated from the corrupt Sadducee priests of the Second Temple and founded the ascetic Essene sect. Judah was ultimately killed for apostasy, and the Essenes apparently believed that he would return to life to usher in the Messianic age. It seems early Christians adopted many elements of this legend. The possibility is explored by Michael O. Wise in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ.

The Flood, the Tower, and Egypt: Why Did the Israelites Have to be Enslaved?

This week’s Torah portion is Miketz, which continues the narrative of Joseph’s meteoric rise to power in Egypt. Two years after Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of his co-prisoners, the Pharaoh’s servants, he is summoned to interpret the bizarre dream of Pharaoh himself. Contrary to popular belief, it was not that Joseph was the only one who had an interpretation at all. The Pharaoh had his own soothsayers, priests, and interpreters. Rather, Joseph’s dream was the only one that came with a plan of action. Impressed, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to put his plan in motion. And Joseph did not disappoint.

After seven years of bountiful harvests, the seven years of famine began. The people quickly ran out of food. (Rashi comments here that although all of Egypt knew that a famine would come, and the whole population stored food for themselves, they found that what they had stored had rotted away.) Thankfully, Joseph had stored plenty of provisions in the royal granaries. The populace “cried out to Pharaoh” for bread, and Pharaoh told them: “Go to Joseph, and do what he tells you.” Rashi quotes a famous Midrash that says Joseph decreed that anyone wanting to receive food must first be circumcised!

Carved Circumcision Scene from a Temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Carved circumcision scene from a temple in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 BCE (Credit: Lasse Jansen)

Amazingly, archaeological evidence shows that circumcision was, in fact, common during Egypt’s 18th dynasty (1543-1292 BCE), which is when these events of the Torah would have taken place. Last year, we wrote of the archaeological evidence corroborating the story of Joseph through the historical figure of Yuya. Yuya also lived during the 18th dynasty, around the time of the carved scene depicted here.

History aside, the big question is: why would Joseph want the Egyptians circumcised?

Adam, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel

The bulk of the Arizal’s commentary on this parasha (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) is dedicated to the above question. He presents an incredible answer, and starts with the following:

“Those 130 years before Moses was born were in order to bring down the sparks of the holy souls that were released by Adam, the first man, through his wasted seed during his first 130 years.”

Biblical chronology shows us that the Israelites spent a total of 210 years in Egypt. The Torah also tells us that Moses was around 80 years old at the time of the Exodus. That means he was born 130 years after the Israelite immigration to Egypt. At the same time, the Torah tells us that Adam had his third son, Shet (or Seth, in English), when he was 130 years old.

Many Jewish texts suggest that after Cain had tragically killed Abel, Adam decided not to have any more children. After 130 years, he was rebuked by the wives of Lemech for separating from Eve, and immediately realized his faulty ways. At that point, Adam and Eve had Seth. However, during those 130 years apart, it is said that Adam had wasted his seed. Since the seed contains the potential for life, when it emerges it produces a soul. However, these souls that Adam created over the 130 years had no body to inhabit. Where did they go? The Arizal continues:

“First, [the souls] came into the bodies of the people of the Flood generation, who also wasted their seed… so they were reincarnated once more in the generation of the Dispersion.”

The damaged souls that Adam had created came down into this world into the bodies of the pre-Flood generation. It was incumbent upon them to perform a tikkun, a correction for their souls, accomplished through meritorious deeds and mitzvot. Unfortunately, the damaged souls were drawn to evil, and themselves became very licentious. They perished in the Great Flood, and were reincarnated into the next generation. However, that generation also went waywardly, and built the infamous Tower of Babel.

“Now, they reincarnated once more into those Egyptians. Joseph knew through Ruach HaKodesh [Divine Inspiration] that they possessed those souls from the wasted seed, and therefore decreed circumcision upon them, to begin the repair of their soul roots.”

Kabbalistically, circumcision is meant to be a reparation for sexual sins. Even on the simplest of levels, a man’s circumcision is supposed to constantly remind him that sex is not to be abused or misused. A man is supposed to be in control of his sexual urges, and channel them only for holy purposes: building a loving relationship with one’s spouse, as well as establishing a proper, righteous family. More spiritually, the act of circumcision creates a metaphysical imprint that is meant to repair sins of a sexual nature, not only for the individual, but also on a more elevated, cosmic level.

“…After they were circumcised, their process of tikkun had begun, and they were then reincarnated into the generation of Israelites during those 130 years [in Egypt, before Moses was born]. And they were forced into difficult labour to purify them, especially to correct the sin of the Tower generation, who also built with bricks and mortar.”

The Egyptians that Joseph had commanded to be circumcised ended up reincarnating as the Israelite slaves. It was decreed upon them from Heaven that they should work hard in servitude as a means of spiritual purification. The mechanism of servitude – construction of buildings through brick and mortar – was meant to be a measure for measure retribution: just as they had built the Tower of Babel for evil means, they were now building in order to reverse their previously sinful ways.

Once their purification was complete, these souls were ready for redemption, and thus Moses was born, precisely 130 years into the timeline, just as Adam had initially created those souls over a 130 year period. It is also interesting to point out that the physical father of all these Israelite souls was Jacob, who came to Egypt when he was 130 years old (as we read next week in Genesis 47:9).

The Arizal thus gives us a profound answer, and not only to the question of why Joseph had the Egyptians circumcised. This short passage also explains why the Flood and Tower generations were particularly drawn to evil, why the Israelites had to be enslaved (since God does not decree any undeserved suffering upon anyone), and why Moses was born exactly when he was.

Ultimately, it is said that the generation of Mashiach will be a rerun of the generation of Moses. It is therefore not surprising that the world today is once again mired in sexual immorality and licentious behaviour. May God give us the strength to overcome all those challenges, and merit to see the coming redemption soon.

 

The Origins of Jerusalem and the Priesthood

“Isaac Blessing Jacob”, by Gustav Doré

This week’s Torah reading is Toldot, featuring the births and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. After twenty years of marriage, Isaac and Rebecca finally conceive. The pregnancy proves to be a strange one, though, with Rebecca’s restless womb feeling like a battlefield. Rebecca decides to seek the counsel of a prophet to figure out what’s going on. It is revealed that she is carrying twins, each of which will go on to found large nations and kingdoms that will always compete with one another. Even in the womb, they are already struggling for dominance. It is prophesized that ultimately the elder twin (Esau) will serve the younger twin (Jacob).

The Torah is unclear about who it was that made this prophecy. In the simplest sense, it is possible that Rebecca herself received the prophecy directly from God since she, too, was a prophetess like all the matriarchs. However, the accepted tradition (and the one cited by Rashi) is that she went to consult with Shem, the son of Noah.

Shem, or Melchizedek?

Depending on how one reads the verses, Shem must have lived for 600 or 602 years. (In the past, we’ve written of the seemingly impossible lifespans of the pre-Flood generations.) The traditional year for the Flood on the Hebrew calendar (where years are designated with an AM, anno mundi) is 1656 AM, approximately 2104 BCE. Shem was around 100 years old at this time (Genesis 11:10), which means that Shem lived roughly until 2156 AM. Abraham was born in 1948 AM, Isaac in 2048 AM, and Jacob in 2108 AM, so it is a very real possibility that Shem met all three patriarchs.

In the 14th chapter of Genesis, we read about Abraham’s war with the alliance of four kings, headed by Amraphel of Shinar. After defeating the kings, Abraham is greeted by Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Shalem), who is also described as being a priest (kohen). Rashi cites the midrash that Melchizedek is none other than Shem, the son of Noah. How did Shem become Melchizedek?

Back to the Tower of Babel

A few weeks ago we wrote of the Tower of Babel and how this Tower was very different from what people generally think. In the aftermath of the Tower, the people – once all living in a single city, with a single language – were scattered across the Earth, and their languages confounded. Not surprisingly, since their languages had totally changed, their names must have totally changed, too. After all, how could those scattered to, say, China, retain their old Semitic names from a life they no longer had any memory of, and with syllables they could no longer pronounce in their new tongue?

Indeed, Rashi tells us that Amraphel, the king of Shinar – leader of the alliance against Abraham – is the very same person as Nimrod – the king who previously tried to kill Abraham by throwing him into a fiery furnace! Before the Tower, the king was known as Nimrod (in fact, many consider him to be the one who spearheaded the Tower project). Now, after the confounding of languages, he was Amraphel of Shinar. And in the same way, Shem was now Melchizedek of Salem.

The First King of Jerusalem

The Torah tells us that following the Flood, Noah brought sacrificial offerings to God. The midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 30:6) fills in that it was actually Shem who facilitated the offerings. Upon exiting the Ark, Noah was attacked by a lion and seriously injured, preventing him from performing the sacrificial rites. Shem stepped in, becoming history’s first official priest. He held onto this role for several centuries. Knowing that Jerusalem is the spiritual centre of the world, and God’s chosen site for offerings, Shem settled there. He called the place Shalem, literally “wholeness” and “peace”, and soon became its king as well.

Following Abraham’s war, it is said that Shem, now known as Melchizedek, conferred the priesthood upon him. The priesthood was then passed down from father to son through the special birthright and blessing (as we read in this week’s portion). With the sin of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai, the firstborn of Israel collectively lost their rights to the priesthood, which was now transferred solely to the tribe of Levi, and more specifically, to the descendants of Aaron. To this day, Jews do the pidyon haben ceremony thirty days after the first male child is born, commemorating this transfer of priesthood from the firstborn to the descendants of Aaron.

Meanwhile, Abraham would later ascend Mt. Moriah in the territory of Salem to bind Isaac in the Akedah. Following this test, Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, literally “where God is seen”. The Sages say that since the righteous Shem called the place Shalem, and the righteous Abraham called it Yireh, God did not want to choose one name over the other, and so, combined the two to make Yerushalaim, Jerusalem.

The Return of the Righteous Priest

How the life of Shem-Melchizedek came to an end appears to be a mystery. Some ancient Jewish texts put him in the same league as Elijah and Enoch, two people who are said to have never died, but rather ascended to the Heavens alive. The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) speaks of a “Righteous Priest” who comes at the End of Days, together with Elijah and the two Messiahs: Mashiach ben David, and Mashiach ben Yosef. The midrash identifies this Righteous Priest as Melchizedek. Together, they make up the “Four Craftsmen” prophesized by Zechariah that will finally usher in a new, peaceful world. May we merit to see it soon.

How Did Adam Live 930 Years?

This week’s parasha is Vayelech, which begins with Moses’ statement that “Today I am one hundred and twenty years old” (Deut. 31:2). It was the 7th of Adar, Moses’ birthday, and also his day of passing. Moses goes on to conclude his final speech to the people, then sings a deeply prophetic farewell song in next week’s portion Ha’azinu, followed by his blessings to the people in the last parasha of the Torah, V’Zot HaBracha.

Moses was the greatest of all prophets, the humblest man to walk the earth, and the central founding figure of Judaism. He was blessed with living a full and healthy life spanning exactly 120 years. It has become common today for people to wish each other 120 years of life. Why is this the specific figure? Can humans not live longer? Don’t we see in Genesis that Adam lived 930 years, Noah lived 950 years, and Methuselah (Metushelach) lived a record 969 years? What happened?

The Flood Generation

Ten generations from Adam, the world had descended into endless sin and immorality. God decreed that man’s days “will be numbered at one hundred and twenty” (Genesis 6:3). Many believe this to mean that God decreed humans will no longer be able to live past 120 years. Indeed, when looking at modern records of longevity, the vast majority of the world’s oldest people die close to 120 years. There has only been one official case of anyone exceeding 120, a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment who lived 122 years.

However, the traditional Jewish interpretation is that the Genesis verse above does not mean man is unable to live past 120. After all, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived long after this decree, and they lived 175, 180, and 147 years, respectively. Rather, the Jewish Sages state that God decreed the arrival of the Great Flood 120 years hence. God gave mankind 120 years to repent, and possibly avert the Flood. Noah was commissioned to go around and inspire people to mend their ways, and he had 120 years to do it.

Unfortunately, Noah failed in this endeavour, unable to bring even a single person to righteousness (as the Ark only carried his own family at the end). This is one reason for why the Flood is known in Hebrew as mabul Noach, literally “Noah’s Flood” (or mei Noach, “Noah’s waters”), as if he was partially responsible for not doing enough to inspire people to change. Because of this, many (including Rashi) have commented on the verse “Noah was a righteous and pure man in his generation” (Genesis 6:9) to mean that Noah was only righteous in his faulty generation. Had he lived in another generation, such as that of Abraham, he would not have been deemed so righteous!

We see from the Biblical chronology that after the Flood, people’s life spans steadily shorten. Moses’ older siblings Aaron and Miriam lived 123 and 126 years. Moses died at 120, and this appears to have become the new limit. After Moses, there are only a few people noted to have lived longer, one of which is Yehoyada the High Priest, who lived 130 years (II Chronicles 24:16).

What accounts for this steady degeneration in longevity?

Yeridat HaDorot

The Talmud (Shabbat 112b) states: “If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses…” This is one of many passages that attests to the well-known concept of yeridat hadorot, “the descent of the generations”. It is said that each passing generation falls lower and lower in its wisdom and spiritual greatness. This concept can solve the puzzle of longevity.

The body is a finite lump of matter. It is only animated and vitalized by the infinite soul within it. Thus, the greater the soul, the longer the body can live. As the spiritual potential in each generation falls, so too does the lifespan.

Moreover, it is taught that Adam contained essentially all of the souls of humanity within him (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 11). As more and more people were born over the centuries, this single universal soul broke down further and further into smaller and smaller fragments. With the exception of a number of “new souls”, the vast majority of the world’s 7 billion people are all parts of the soul of Adam. It is therefore not surprising that today’s spiritual capabilities (and with that, the lifespans) are severely limited.

At the Speed of Light

Science may offer another intriguing possibility. According to modern physics, time as we know it doesn’t really exist. The universe is one interwoven fabric of both time and space. The faster one moves through space, the slower the effects of time for that person. There is actually a formula to measure the impact of this time dilation, known as the Lorentz transformation. It is given by the equation ΔT = t√1-v2/c2, where v is one’s speed and c is the speed of light.

Theoretically, the speed of light is the absolute maximum in our universe. At light speed (just under 3.00 x 108 m/s, or 300,000 km/s), time will totally stop for the traveller (if plugging it into the formula, one gets a value of zero). This seems impossible. However, if we plug in a value very close to light speed, such as 2.99 x 108 m/s, we get a very interesting result.* A person who has perceived living 80 years will have actually lived 980 earthly years! That makes Adam’s 930 years a more palatable 76, and Methuselah’s record 969 as 79. This fits in well with the verse in Psalms that a normal lifespan is 70 to 80 years (Psalms 90:10). But how could Adam and Methuselah have lived at near-light speed?

Beautifully, the Sages teach us that Adam was not a human like us. In many texts (such as Bereshit Rabbah 20:12), Adam is described not simply as a being of flesh, but rather as a being of light. Though most will interpret this metaphorically, there are those sages, such as the Arizal (for example, in Sefer HaLikutim, Bereshit, ch. 3) that interpret this quite literally. It remains to be seen what this means exactly, and if it has anything at all to do with physics, but perhaps there is much more to the idea of Adam being a man of light than we can imagine.

Adam and Eve - Beings of Light, as portrayed in the film Noah (2014)

Adam and Eve – Beings of Light, as portrayed in the film ‘Noah’ (2014)

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*To be fair, choosing a value such as 2.99 x 108 m/s may be deemed quite arbitrary. One can also plug in finer values even closer to the speed of light, such as 2.997 or 2.9972, and so on, each of which would give a more refined result. The point of this exercise is simply to illustrate the relativity of time, and what might explain the difference in perceived years between our generations and those of the first people, through a scientific perspective.

Does the Torah Allow Polygamy?

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetze, is full of intriguing Torah laws. One of these is with regards to inheritance in the case of a man having two wives, where one of them is beloved while the other is hated. This brings up a fairly big question: does the Torah permit polygamy, the practice of having multiple spouses? On the one hand, looking at passages such as the one mentioned here, it appears that the Torah does allow it. On the other hand, we see very few actual cases of polygamy in the Torah, and in those few cases, they are always painted in a negative light. So, what’s the final verdict?

Starting at the very beginning, God created Adam and Eve – one man and one woman – and commanded: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Clearly, it was God’s intent that a single man unite with a single woman to become completely unified as one. Monogamy is undoubtedly the ideal.

The Talmud (Sotah 2a) further comments: “Forty days before the conception of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and declares: ‘the daughter of so-and-so is designated for so-and-so’…” Thus, long before a child is even born, their spouse is already designated for them in the Heavens. This may be among the most ancient sources for the concept of soulmates. Interestingly, the same passage in the Talmud concludes that this applies specifically to a first marriage, while to pair a second marriage would be “as difficult as the Splitting of the Sea”!

Not surprisingly, essentially every case of polygamy in the Torah comes with a negative twist. The first person to have multiple wives was Lemech, in the seventh generation from Adam (Genesis 4:19). Here, Rashi writes that it became common in the time of Lemech for men to take two wives: one for reproduction, and the other simply for pleasure. The latter would be given a certain medicine that made her infertile, and would be adorned and beautified. This was a great evil, and Rashi suggests that it was one of the major reasons for the Great Flood that wiped out the Earth’s population. Further solidifying the point, the Torah explicitly states that the righteous Noah and his three sons each had a single wife.

Ten generations later, Abraham was married solely to Sarah, until it became clear that she was barren. At this point, Sarah suggested the surrogate womb of Hagar. This brought a great deal of tension into the family, and Hagar had to be expelled from their home. Later, after Sarah’s passing, Abraham formally married Hagar, who was now known as Keturah. (Although 24:6 suggests that Abraham may have had other concubines, Rashi assures us that the verse refers only to Keturah.) Abraham’s son Isaac married only Rebecca, and this couple is held up as an ideal of love and marriage. (We have explored this in more depth in the past; see: ‘Isaac and Rebecca: the Secret to Perfect Marriage’ in Garments of Light.)

Jacob, too, only wished to marry Rachel. However, his father-in-law Laban tricked him into first marrying her sister Leah. Although he could have technically divorced her, Jacob took pity on Leah, as no one wanted to marry her. With Rachel’s consent, he kept Leah as a wife, but never loved her. This alludes directly to the passage in this week’s Torah portion that describes a man with two wives, one beloved, and one despised. Later, when Rachel and Leah were barren, they too gave their maidservants (Bilhah and Zilpah) to Jacob as surrogates in order to bear more children. Jacob may be the only righteous Torah figure that can be described as polygamous. Ultimately, the competition between his wives, and later between their respective children, only brought Jacob endless troubles, and he himself stated that his life was a miserable one (Genesis 46:9).

Having said that, the cases of Jacob and Abraham illustrate why the Torah seems to allow polygamy, and does not expressly forbid it. Throughout most of history, the average person could not survive on their own. There were no condos for rent, no fully-stocked supermarkets, and no police departments to call. People generally had to construct their own homes, grow the bulk of their own food, and defend their property by themselves. This required a lot of hands, and very large families. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always possible.

For instance, if a woman was unable to have children, it would make it very hard for the couple to make a living. Thus, instead of abandoning their wives, men would take on another. A good example is that of Elkanah, who married Peninah because his beloved Hannah was barren. Peninah gave him ten sons, yet he always loved Hannah more than anything (I Samuel 1:5-8).

Further exacerbating the problem was that oftentimes the population of women far outnumbered that of men, since entire male populations could be decimated in battle. In order to survive, several women would have to marry a single man. (This also helps to explain why it is polygyny, the practice of having multiple wives, that predominates, and not polyandry, the practice of having multiple husbands).

And yet, polygamy was still extremely rare in the Jewish world. Joseph and his brothers, Amram, Moses*, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, and just about every other great Torah figure was monogamous. The kings of Israel were permitted to take on multiple wives, but mainly for the sake of political alliances. Most famously, King Solomon had one thousand wives and concubines, yet these were certainly not for his own pleasure. Rather, they were marriages for political purposes that allowed him to bring peace to the entire region (hence his fateful name, Shlomo, which means “peace”). This, too, ended in disaster though, and was never attempted again by any other Hebrew king.

Further on, the Sages of the Talmud were monogamous, and by the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Gershom formally banned polygamy. Today, it is essentially unheard of in the Jewish world, as well as in the Western world at large. Once again, this could very well be a reflection of the world approaching a perfected state, and a return to the Garden of Eden, where a pair of soulmates – one male and one female – can unite as one, as God originally intended.

'Garden of Eden', by Thomas Cole

‘Garden of Eden’, by Thomas Cole

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*Numbers 12:1 may make it seem like Moses had a second wife, but the Midrash explains that after Moses fled Egypt in his youth, he lived in Cush (likely modern-day Ethiopia) and married there, though he never consummated that marriage. Because of this, he left Cush and made his way to Midian, where he married his one true wife, Tzipora.