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)

The Creation account suggests that monogamy was a biblical ideal:

Nevertheless, there are several cases of polygamy a sanctioned practice in most of the ancient world mentioned in the Bible.

Biblical 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.[4]

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.


[1] Gen. 2:24 [back]
Judg. 8:30; II Sam. 5:13; I Kings 11:1-8 [back]
[3] Ps. 128; Prov. 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-31 Eccles. 25:1; 26 [back]
[4] Although many ordinances such as these (known as takkanot in Hebrew), which regulated Jewish life

sources Philip Birnbaum, Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts (New York, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1998)
The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Copyright 1997 by Oxford University Press.
Louis Jacobs, What Does Judaism Say About...? (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973), Copyright 1973 by Keter Publishing House Jerusalem.
Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing) [back]

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