Jews and Monogamy: A Love Story

Monogamy is considered a fundamental key to shalom bayit - but this may not have always been the case.

By
Golda Gross

King Solomon famously had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Abraham, the founding father of Judaism, had two wives, and Jacob, his grandson, had four. So how did a tribe rooted in polygamy grow into a monogamous religious system?


How Many Wives? A Chronology

The simplest answer is a quick historical overview of Jewish family law. In the Torah, like we said, polygamy is entirely accepted, if not promoted in certain cases, such as when a man dies childless and his brother is called upon to marry his widow and perpetuate his posterity (yibum, or Levirate marriage). From a practical point of view, the more wives, the more children - and at a time where many died in childbirth or childhood, this was key in ensuring the survival of a family as a whole.


During Temple times (10th century BCE - 70 BCE) polygamy was allowed by Jewish authorities, but historians disagree as to the frequency of its practice, arguing that it was reserved to affluent households.


Following the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in 70 BCE, Jews were dispersed across the globe. Communities later known as the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews settled in Muslim countries, where polygamy was widespread.


In Ashkenazi communities, who were exposed to Christian culture in Europe, polygamy was prohibited around the turn of the first millenium by Rabbenu Gershom, one of the most prominent rabbinical authorities of the time; his decree was widely adopted across the continent and today polygamy is rare, including in Sephardi families, even though the ban never formally applied to non-Ashkenazi communities.


Nowadays the overwhelming majority of Jews have fully cast polygamy aside, and the rituals or speeches included in marriage ceremonies will often include references to Adam and Eve, celebrate the pairing of two soulmates, and draw parallels between the newlywed couple and the sacred union of God with the Israelites at Mount Sinai - none of which would make sense in the context of a polygamous marriage.


The Yemenite community, who had the strongest habit of polygamy, including through yibum, made aliyah en masse and now largely respects the local prohibition of polygamy.


From this quick historical overview, the obvious conclusion is that Jewish communities who were exposed to the Christian way of life became monogamous by emulation, while communities living in Muslim countries did not, for the same reason - in short, that external interactions were the determining factor in shaping Jewish family structures.


However, a deeper dive into this evolution may reveal a more complex story.

Polygamy in the Talmud: Law and Language

Jewish law was built in layers: first the Torah, which serves as the foundation layer, then the succinct text of the Mishna, written during Temple times, and then the Gemara, which discusses at length every rule and saying of the Mishna, thus capturing the diversity in opinions along with anecdotes, parables and passing thoughts of the contributing Rabbis.


In the case of polygamy, there are many clues as to the fact that polygamy was legal but not practiced often, and widely frowned upon.


An extreme example of this is Rav Ammi, who held that “whoever marries a wife in addition to his [present] wife must pay [the present wife] the amount of her ketubah” (Yevamot 65a).

Here, Rav Ammi considers that taking a second wife would essentially amount to termination of the first marriage, rendering polygamy impossible.


Of course, this was not the majority position, and to others, like Rava, “a man may marry many wives in addition to his first wife, provided only that he possess the means to maintain them”.


Still, the condition that he mentions isn’t trivial: marrying another wife literally means creating an additional household, since co-wives were entitled to their own space, which only the very rich could afford.


In addition to explicit rulings or opinions, the language that the Talmud uses is very telling: marriage is referred to as “zivug”, or “pairing”, implying the involvement of only two people, man and woman, and the term used for co-wife is “tzara”, which also means “trouble” in Hebrew.


This is reminiscent of the tensions between the co-wives transpiring in Biblical stories, a lesson that Abraham, Jacob and King Solomon learnt the hard way, and is echoed by Talmudic anecdotes, like the one about the man who had two wives, one young and one old:


“The young one used to pluck out his white hair, and the old one used to pluck out his black hair. Finally, he was bald on both sides”.


This seems like a good summary of how the Talmud views polygamy: it is allowed, but not recommended.


Rabbenu Gershom’s Ban

If most Sages agreed from Talmudic times that polygamy was fundamentally not a good idea, then why did it take until 1000 CE for a ban to be formalized?


One possibility was that polygamy was a way for Jews to distinguish themselves from other nations, and therefore they had a hard time parting from it officially.


Not only was there external pressure from the Roman Empire, who had imposed monogamy on all of its territories, and later from Christian society, but the Qumran Scrolls also mentions an internal pressure in the form of fundamentalist sects that splintered away from mainstream Judaism around the same time as the birth of Christianity, and that also valued monogamy as the “purest” form of family structure, often quoting the pairing of Adam and Eve as their ideal model.


Over time, as monogamy became increasingly “normalised” in the Jewish community, it seems that polygamy ceased to be a defining characteristic of the Jewish people, freeing Jewish authorities from the fear of looking like they were giving in to external or internal pressures.


Only then was Rabbenu Gershom in the right position to formalize by a legal text what had been accepted and practiced for a long time. The one thousand wives of Solomon were long forgotten, and the ban was in no way seen as a bold rebuke of Biblical patriarchs.


What About the Wives?

So, is this where the story ends? In truth, to really understand polygamy in Judaism, we are missing one key voice: that of Jewish women.


Nowadays, the practice of polygamy is often seen as the mark of a patriarchal and archaic social group, but ironically this isn’t always based on testimonies from the women themselves, and when they do raise their voices, they often tell a more nuanced story.


In his novel Journey to the End of the Millenium - a reference to Rabbenu Gershom’s ban? - A.B Yehoshua tries to imagine how a Moroccan polygamous family may try to convince a stern French Alsacian community to view their lifestyle choice simply as a cultural difference, as opposed to an affront to morality.


In the story, the two co-wives are called upon to share their experience, and neither of them express bitterness or competitiveness. On the contrary - they talk of their friendship for one another, and their preference for marital duality over singularity.


As interesting as these characters are, they remain fictional and, ultimately, due to lack of testimonies recorded throughout history, we will never know for sure whether the average Jewish woman who didn’t have to share her husband was happier, more fulfilled or better treated than one who did.


What is sure is that the switch from polygamy to monogamy serves as a great example of how, despite its reputation, Jewish law is capable of change, including when it comes to fundamental aspects of life.


Sources:

“The Story of Jewish Monogamy”, M. Goldfeder, Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 2014


“Are We Monogamous? A Review of the Evolution of Pair-Bonding in Humans and Its Contemporary Variation Cross-Culturally”, R. Schacht and K. L. Kramer, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2019


“Marrying More Than One Wife: The Decree of Rabbeinu Gershom—Then and Today”, dinonline.org


Journey to the end of the Millenium, A. B. Yehoshua, 1997


About the author

Golda Gross

Golda was born in Paris to a family that sings a lot during Shabbat meals. She studied biology in Manchester, London and Tel Aviv where she now lives and works in a lab.