Illustration of Jacob and Rachel. (shutterstock) shutterstock

Contrary to our natural intuition and Western mentality, the Torah permitted marriage to more than one wife, a practice the rabbis later outlawed for practical considerations.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Vayeitzei” (Genesis 28:10–32:3) and in it we read about Jacob’s marriage to four women: Leah, Rachel, Bilha, and Zilpah.

There are a lot of questions concerning Jacob’s marriages. For one, how could he marry two sisters? The Torah clearly forbids doing so.

While it is true the Torah had not been given yet, we are told that the Patriarchs observed the entire Torah even before it was given. In fact, according to some commentators, all four women were sisters. I am going to leave this question for you to ponder, and come up with your own answers for how Jacob did such a thing.

What I want to discuss, however, is Judaism’s approach to polygamy, marrying more than one wife.

According to Torah law, there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, and in fact, it is essentially permitted.

The Torah actually gives rules and instructions regarding taking more than one wife, and maybe even assumes that many will choose to do so. For example, in Exodus 21:10 we read, that if a man wants to take another wife he must not diminish the food, clothing, and marital duties of the first wife. In Deuteronomy 21:15–17 we read that one must honor the laws of the firstborn rights and privileges even if the first born comes from a lesser-loved wife. And in Deuteronomy 17:17 we are told that a king must not take too many wives. As we know, Solomon was chastised for violating this commandment.

Contrary to our natural intuition and Western mentality, polygamy was considered to be a blessing of sorts for women. It was a realistic and beneficial solution for women who were widowed or divorced which almost always meant certain poverty.

The ability for a man to marry such women, in addition to his preexisting wife, only helped the plight of such women.

So too, the “levirate marriage,” when a man would marry his deceased brother’s widow, was a form of positive polygamy intended to help the woman. As polygamy required above average financial resources, it may not have been too common, as the Talmud says: A man may marry wives in addition to the first wife only if he has the means to maintain them.”

Although Maimonides acknowledged that polygamy was permitted, he counseled against it. He also took the concern for additional wives a step further and rules that a man cannot compel his wives to live together in the same home. Each [additional] wife must be given her own apartment.

While we will get to Rabbeinu Gershom in a moment, it is interesting to note that the Code of Jewish law writes, “[B]ut in any event, our sages have well advised us not to marry more than four wives, in order that he can meet their conjugal needs at least once a month. And in a place where it is customary to marry only one wife, he is not permitted to take a second wife.”

Therefore, since it is the practice of most places in the world to marry only one wife, the entire issue of the permissibility of polygamy is moot. As the Code of Jewish Law states, it is simply not permitted where it is not practiced.

The total disappearance of Jewish polygamy is likely due primarily to the efforts of the famous Rabbeinu (“our rabbi”) Gershom, circa 1000 CE. Rabbeinu Gershom enacted a number of life-changing enactments upon the Ashkenazi Jewish community.

Some of the more famous enactments include: the ban on taking a second wife, the ban on divorcing a wife against her will, and the ban on reading other people’s mail without permission. His enactments were unanimously accepted.

Polygamy was now formally forbidden for Ashkenazi Jewry.

There are a number of reasons given as to why Rabbeinu Gershom wanted to do away with polygamy. One explanation is that the Christian world in which Ashkenazi Jews lived did not practice it, hence, doing so would be seen as socially and morally unbecoming. Other considerations for the ban include preventing abusive men from mistreating their wives, preventing domestic strife between wives, and ensuring that a man would be able to properly support his primary wife.

Sephardic Jews, which by extension, generally means Jews from Islamic countries, were not subject to Rabbeinu Gershom’s restrictions and continued to practice polygamy just like the rest of the population in the Islamic world.

Today, polygamy has decreased even in Islamic lands. The only exception to Jewish polygamy is Yemen, where Jewish polygamy continues to this day. Although polygamy is forbidden in the State of Israel, those who immigrate to Israel with multiple wives from lands in which polygamy is legal are allowed to remain married to their wives.

There are situations, however, where certain forms of polygamy are permitted even nowadays. For example, the Beit Din, the Rabbinic court, might allow a man to marry a second wife in the event that his current wife refuses to get divorced when completely justified, when the wife disappeared and her whereabouts are unknown, or the wife is mentally unable to participate in the divorce proceedings.

In these cases a “heter meah rabbanim” will often be permitted. This is a procedure in which the husband will be permitted to marry a second wife if he, or the court, can secure the signature of 100 rabbis who are aware of the circumstances and approve the measure. With mass emailing and WhatsApp communication, finding 100 rabbis to sign on is certainly not as hard as it used to be.

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