Jewish Polygamy

Dear Rabbi Hyim,

Thank you for your column last time about sex in the Jewish community that was very interesting, I even read it to my boyfriend.   Jewish people sure seem to have a healthy attitude toward sex.   On the other hand when I read the Bible I notice that many of the early Jewish figures had more than on wife, Jacob for instance.  Is polygamy permitted in Judaism?   Do Jewish people today have more than one spouse?  I thought only Mormons did that.

Sincerely,

Shantesha L.
St. Louis

Dear Shantesha,

You have been reading the Bible closely, which is always good.  Indeed the Bible (which is the first Jewish book) does seem to permit men to have more than one wife, and some of the Jewish Patriarchs did.   On the other hand Abraham seems to have had only one wife,  only took a second wife when Sara could not have children.   Isaac his son had only one wife, Rebecca.  Jacob, the third generation, meant to have only one wife but was fooled into marrying the wrong woman and so latter, in addition to her, he married her sister, his true beloved, after working for Laban her father for her for 14 years for her.  Noah seems to have had only one wife, as did Moses.

Though the Bible does not expressly forbid polygamy, it does seem that almost none of the Jewish people recorded in the Bible volitionally had more than one wife, they did so only under trying circumstances.

Later in history things changed for some Jewish communities. About 1000 years ago, a great Rabbi, Rabbenu Gershom, forbid polygamy for Jewish people in Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazic Jews.  The practice was not forbidden for Jews who lived in Muslim lands such as Spain and North Africa though.  These Jews are called Sefardim (Spaniards), and up until recently some of those communities still practiced polygamy.  In fact some Jews from those lands who moved to Israel after the modern state’s founding still had more than one wife.

Just because polygamy was permitted in Judaism for several millennia, the needs of one’s wives of course had to be taken into account.  Thus Maimonides, who was a Sephardic Jew and so was not bound by Rabbinu Gershom’s decree against polygamy, in his Code of Jewish Law writes that a Jewish man should limit the number of wives he has to four in order that he will be able to satisfy them all conjugally.

Of course, four wives is a lot of in-laws…

2 Comments

  1. Stephen Parker

    Dear Rabbi Hyim,

    If I am only with my wife every other night may I decrease my number of in-laws by half? 😉

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