The fact or condition of having more than one wife or husband at a time; usually, the practise of having a plurality of wives. While there is no evidence of a polyandrous state in primitive Jewish society, polygamy seems to have been a well-established institution, dating from the most ancient times and extending to comparatively modern days. The Law indeed regulated and limited this usage; and the Prophets and the scribes looked upon it with disfavor. Still all had to recognize its existence, and not until late was it completely abolished. At no time, however, was it practised so much among the Israelites as among other nations; and the tendency in Jewish social life was always toward Monogamy.

That the ideal state of human society, in the mind of the primitive Israelite, was a monogamous one is clearly evinced by the fact that the first man (Adam) was given only one wife, and that the first instance of bigamy occurred in the family of the cursed Cain (Gen. iv. 19). Noah and his sons also are recorded as having only one wife each (ib. vi. 7, 13). Abraham had only one wife; and he was persuaded to marry his slave Hagar (ib. xvi. 2, 3; see Pilegesh) only at the urgent request of his wife, who deemed herself barren. Isaac had only one wife. Jacob married two sisters, because he was deceived by his father-in-law, Laban (ib. xxix. 23-30). He, too, married his wives' slaves at the request of his wives, who wished to have children (ib. xxx. 4, 9). The sons of Jacob as well as Moses and Aaron seem to have lived in monogamy. Among the Judges, however, polygamy was practised, as it was also among the rich and the nobility (Judges viii. 30; comp. ib. xii. 9, 14; I Chron. ii. 26, iv. 5, viii. 8). Elkanah, the father of Samuel, had two wives, probably because the first (Hannah) was childless (I Sam. i. 2). The tribe of Issachar was noted for its practise of polygamy (I Chron. vii. 4). Caleb had two concubines (ib. ii. 46, 48). David and Solomon had many wives (II Sam. v. 13; I Kings xi. 1-3), a custom which was probably followed by all the later kings of Judah and of Israel (comp. I Kings xx. 3; also the fact that the names of the mothers of most of the kings are mentioned). Jehoiada gave to Joash two wives only (II Chron. xxiv. 3).

Prophetic Attitude.

There is no Biblical evidence that any of the Prophets lived in polygamy. Monogamous marriage was used by them as a symbol of the union of God with Israel, while polygamy was compared to polytheism or idolatrous worship (Hos. ii. 18; Isa. l. 1; Jer. ii. 2; Ezek. xvi. 8). The last chapter of Proverbs, which is a description of the purity of home life, points to a state of monogamy. The marriage with one wife thus became the ideal form with the great majority of the people; and in post-exilic times polygamy formed the rare exception (Tobit i. 10; Susanna 63; Matt. xvii. 25, xix. 9; Luke i. 5). Herod, however, is recorded as having had nine wives (Josephus, "Ant." xvii. 1, § 3).

The Mosaic law, while permitting polygamy, introduced many provisions which tended to confine it to narrower limits, and to lessen the abuse that might arise in connection with it. The Israelitish woman slave who was taken as a wife by the son of her master was entitled to all the rights of matrimony(see Husband and Wife), even after he had taken another wife; and if they were withheld from her, she had to be set free (Ex. xxi. 9-11; see Slaves). One who lived in bigamy might not show his preference for the children of the more favored wife by depriving the first-born son of the less favored one of his rights of inheritance (Deut. xxi. 15-17; see Inheritance). The king should not "multiply wives" (ib. xvii. 17; comp. Sanh. 21a, where the number is limited to 18, 24, or 48, according to the various interpretations given to II Sam. xii. 8); and the high priest is, according to the rabbinic interpretation of Lev. xxi. 13, commanded to take one wife only (Yeb. 59a; comp. Yoma 2a).

Rabbinic Aversion to Polygamy.

The same feeling against polygamy existed in later Talmudic times. Of all the rabbis named in the Talmud there is not one who is mentioned as having lived in polygamy. The general sentiment against polygamy is illustrated in a story related of the son of R. Judah ha-Nasi (Ket. 62a). A peculiar passage in the Targum (Aramaic paraphrase) to Ruth iv. 6 points to the same state of popular feeling. The kinsman of Elimelech, being requested by Boaz to marry Ruth, said, "I can not redeem; for I have a wife and have no right to take another in addition to her, lest she be a disturbance in my house and destroy my peace. Redeem thou; for thou hast no wife." This is corroborated by R. Isaac, who says that the wife of Boaz died on the day when Ruth entered Palestine (B. B. 91a). Polygamy, was, however, sanctioned by Jewish law and gave rise to many rabbinical discussions. While one rabbi says that a man may take as many wives as he can support (Raba, in Yeb. 65a), it was recommended that no one should marry more than four women (ib. 44a). R. Ami was of the opinion that a woman had a right to claim a bill of divorce if her husband took another wife (ib. 65a). The institution of the Ketubah, which was introduced by the Rabbis, still further discouraged polygamy; and subsequent enactments of the Geonim (see Müller's "Mafteaḥ," p. 282, Berlin, 1891) tended to restrict this usage.

Rabbi Gershom's Decree.

An express prohibition against polygamy was pronounced by R. Gershom b. Judah, "the Light of the Exile" (960-1028), which was soon accepted in all the communities of northern France and of Germany. The Jews of Spain and of Italy as well as those of the Orient continued to practise polygamy for a long period after that time, although the influence of the prohibition was felt even in those countries. Some authorities suggested that R. Gershom's decree was to be enforced for a time only, namely, up to 5000 A.M. (1240 C.E.; Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 101; see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, i. 10, Isserles' gloss), probably believing that the Messiah would appear before that time; but this opinion was overruled by that of the majority of medieval Jewish rabbis. Even in the Orient monogamy soon became the rule and polygamy the exception; for only the wealthy could afford the luxury of many wives. In Africa, where Mohammedan influence was strongest, the custom was to include in the marriage contract the following paragraph: "The said bridegroom . . . hereby promises that he will not take a second wife during the lifetime of the said bride . . . except with her consent; and, if he transgresses this oath and takes a second wife during the lifetime of the said bride and without her consent, he shall give her every tittle of what is written in the marriage settlement, together with all the voluntary additions herein detailed, paying all to her up to the last farthing, and he shall free her by regular divorce instantly and with fitting solemnity." This condition was rigidly enforced by the rabbinic authorities (see Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," p. 120).

Later Instances.

The Jews of Spain practised polygamy as late as the fourteenth century. The only requirement there was a special permit, for which a certain sum was probably paid into the king's treasury each time a Jew took an additional wife (Jacobs, "Sources," p. xxv., No. 104, London, 1894). Such cases, however, were rare exceptions. The Spanish Jews, as well as their brethren in Italy and in the Orient, soon gave up these practises; and today, although the Jews of the East live under Mohammedan rule, but few cases of polygamy are found among them.

In some exceptional cases bigamy was permitted (see Bigamy); but this was in very rare cases only, and the consent of 100 learned men of three different states was required (see Insanity). While in the case of the 'Agunah one witness who testifies to the death of her husband is sufficient to permit the woman to remarry, in the case of the woman's disappearance some authorities ("Bet Shemuel" on Eben ha-'Ezer, 158, 1; 15, 20) are of the opinion that the testimony of one witness is not sufficient to permit the husband to remarry (see Fassel, "Mishpete El; Das Mosaisch-Rabbinische Civilrecht,"§§ 63, 112, Nagy-Kanizsa, 1852). Later authorities, however, permit him to remarry even when there is only one witness to testify to the death of his wife, and even when that witness did not know her personally, providing that after he had described the deceased woman the husband recognized the description as that of his wife ("Noda' Bihudah," series ii., Eben ha-'Ezer, 7, 8; comp. "Ḥatam Sofer" on Eben ha-'Ezer, responsum 2; "Pitḥe Teshubah" on Eben ha-'Ezer, 1, 10).

Survivals of Polygamy.

In spite of the prohibition against polygamy and of the general acceptance thereof, the Jewish law still retains many provisions which apply only to a state which permits polygamy. The marriage of a married man is legally valid and needs the formality of a bill of divorce for its dissolution, while the marriage of a married woman is void and has no binding force (Eben ha-'Ezer, 1, 10; comp. "Pitḥe Teshubah," § 20, where is quoted the opinion of some authorities that after a man takes a second wife he is not compelled to divorce her). The Reform rabbis in conference assembled (Philadelphia, 1869) decided that "the marriage of a married man to a second woman can neither take place nor claim religious validity, just as little as the marriage of a married woman to another man, but,like this, is null and void from the beginning." Still, with the majority of Jews, this is not even an open question, and the marriage of a married man is considered just as valid as that of an unmarried man; it not only requires the formality of divorce in the case of separation, but also makes him subject to the laws of relationship; so that he can not afterward marry the wife's sister while the wife is living, nor can he or his near relatives, according to the laws of consanguinity, enter into matrimonial relations with any of her near relatives (see Marriage).

  • Hastings, Dict. Bible, s.v. Marriage;
  • Hamburger. R. B. T., s.v. Vielweiberei;
  • Frankel, Grundlinien des Mosaisch-Talmudischen Eherechts, Breslau, 1860;
  • Lichtenstein, Die Ehe nach Mosaisch-Talmudischer Auffassung, ib. 1879;
  • Klugman, Stellung der Frau im Talmud, Vienna, 1898;
  • Rabbinowicz, Mebo ha-Talmud, Hebr. transl., p. 80, Wilna, 1894;
  • Buchholz, Die Familie, Breslau, 1867;
  • Mielziner, The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce, Cincinnati, 1884;
  • Duschak, Das Mosaisch-Talmudische Eherecht, Vienna, 1864.
E. C. J. H. G.
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