|Have a question about Jewish
customs, practice or prayer? No question is too
grand or too trivial. Just ask the Rabbi
David Fine, spiritual leader of Lake Park
Synagogue in Milwaukee.
David Fine graduated cum laude with high honors
from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and
Judaic Studies, received an MA in Jewish history
from the graduate school of the Jewish
Theological Seminary and was ordained at the
Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary of Yeshivat
HaMivtar in Efrat, Israel.
polygamy embodies original intent for marriage
By Rabbi David Fine
Why is polygamy not
accepted practice when our patriarchs were polygamous and there
is no specific halacha against it? Also, from the opposite perspective,
why was polygamy practiced by our patriarchs when the Torah clearly
says that Eve was made for Adam as his wife, and the wording for
woman and wife were in the singular and not the plural?
Ivan M. Lang
The following summary is partly based on a class by Rabbi Menachem
Schrader at Yeshivat Hamivtar on Sept. 5, 1996. Thanks to my friend
Rabbi Uri Cohen of Israel for the help.
The verse about the creation of the first woman, I will
make a helper opposite him (Genesis 2:18), tells us that
G-d intended marriage to be monogamous one woman and one
man should be partners for each other. However, because G-d gave
humans free will, the world does not always develop the way G-d
The first recorded polygamy is that of Lemekh (Genesis 4:19).
Why did he do it? A midrash suggests he wanted one wife for procreation
and another for sex; the first wife would bear children and then
become a living widow because her husband would ignore her, and
the second wife would sterilize herself and dress up like a prostitute
(Genesis Rabbah 33:2).
This midrash is complaining that polygamy objectifies women. If
a wife is not a partner but just someone to use, its more
efficient to use two of them.
It is true that both Abraham and Jacob married more than one wife.
However, neither one planned to do so, but was pressured into
it, Abraham by Sarahs desperation, and Jacob by Labans
Furthermore, the additional wives were not concubines (second-class
wives for sex), but rather full-privilege wives (Genesis 16:3;
Nachmanides on 25:6; 30:4 and 9; Radak on 35:22). Finally, both
Abraham and Jacob suffered as a result of having more than one
wife. (Interestingly, the Hebrew word for co-wives is tzara
enemies!) Accordingly, we understand polygamy as something
to be avoided.
If polygamy is against G-ds design for marriage, and can
objectify women and lead to problems, why was it permitted at
all? Rabbi Reuven Bulka suggests that in biblical times, having
the option of polygamy was sometimes in womens best interest:
Some women may have preferred only one husband, of meager
means, and a life of struggle. Others may have preferred sharing
a husband if that meant fewer financial worries. This free choice
was to the womans advantage (Jewish Marriage,
However, eventually times changed and the negatives of polygamy
far outweighed the positives for women. So around the year 1000
C.E., Rabbenu Gershom prohibited polygamy once and for all.
Almost all Jewish groups accepted this ban. It wasnt until
the 1950s that the ban became completely unanimous, after a decree
of Israels Chief Rabbinate. But now all Jewish marriage
is monogamous, as G-d had originally intended.
Rabbi David Fine is spiritual leader of Lake Park Synagogue.
His column is found regularly on our web site at www.jewishchronicle.org.