The biblical conception
of marriage is essentially monogamous,(1)
and although in biblical times polygamy was common among the upper classes,(2)
the many references to marriage in the Wisdom literature seem to take it for
granted that a man had only one wife.(3)
Nevertheless, there are several
cases of polygamy a sanctioned practice in most of
the ancient world mentioned in the Bible.
account suggests that monogamy was a biblical ideal:
and later Rabbinic law permitted the practice of polygamy. It is, nonetheless,
significant, that when the Hebrew prophets use the illustration of a man and
his wife for God's love for Israel and Israel for God, it is clear that for
them, monogamy was the ideal. So, too, in the idyllic picture of family life
portrayed in the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the "woman of worth
[or valor]" is the only wife in her home.
Likewise, despite its validity
in Rabbinic law, Talmudic society was predominant monogamous; hardly any of
the 2,000 or so teachers mentioned in the Talmud had more than one wife; it
is also revealing that in discussions regarding marriage, the Talmud generally
refers to husband and wife, not wives. The Talmud does stipulate that a husband
wanting to take on additional wives, must prove himself capable of providing
for them and of fulfilling his marital obligations toward them before he takes
them on as additional wives. If the first wife's ketubbah (marriage contract)
contains a stipulation against additional wives, then her husband may not ignore
it. Moreover, if local custom is to practice monogamy then all local ketubbot
(marriage contracts) are to be read as if they contained such a stipulation.
In the tenth century, polygamy
was outlawed in the Ashkenazi (Franco-German) world by a ban attributed to leading
halakhic authority and head of the academy in Mainz, Gershom ben Yehuda (c.960-1028)
also known as Me'or ha-Golah (Light of the
Diaspora). Recent research has shown that the ban was, in fact, instituted a
century or two later. Rabbeinu Gershom issued several ordinances that were accepted
as binding by the Jews of Europe bans against polygamy,
against divorcing a woman without her consent, reading letters addressed to
others, and scoffing at converts that returned to Judaism.
Those who violated these
regulations were subject to excommunication (herem), a powerful weapon
in the hands of the Jewish leaders who regulated the internal affairs of the
Jewish communities; hence the ordinances were known as Herem of Rabbenu Gershom.
A breach of the ordinance (takkanah) against polygamy constitutes grounds
for the first wife to request the Jewish court to force her husband to divorce
the second wife, or to give her a get and return her ketubbah. In certain
circumstances, where, for instance, the wife is incurably insane, a dispensation
of the ban is sometimes granted, provided the signatures of 100 rabbis, residing
in different lands can be obtained.
Among the Sephardi communities,
where polygamy was an accepted cultural norm, the ban never took effect, and
a few Sephardi (Spanish Jewish descent) communities still practice polygamy.
In 1950, the chief rabbis of Israel enacted that monogamy as binding upon all
Jews both Sephardim and Ashkenazim
irrespective of communal affiliation. Polygamy is considered a criminal offense
in the State of Israel, although the release of the hundred rabbis is still
valid, if approved by the two chief rabbis.
8:30; II Sam. 5:13; I Kings 11:1-8 [back]
128; Prov. 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31 Eccles. 25:1; 26 [back]
many ordinances such as these (known as takkanot in Hebrew), which
regulated Jewish life
Birnbaum, Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts (New York, Hebrew Publishing
The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Copyright © 1997 by
Oxford University Press.
Jacobs, What Does Judaism Say About...? (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing
House, 1973), Copyright © 1973 by Keter Publishing House Jerusalem.
Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing)
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