Tag Archives: Rabbeinu Gershom

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.