Why did the Jews stop practicing polygamy?


As anyone who reads the Old Testament knows, the Jewish people practiced polygamy at one time - yet the practice seems unheard of now, or even I would imagine forbidden? I wonder if anyone has any theories as to why they stopped? When was the last time in history that Jews were allowed to marry multiple wives? And does the Torah address this issue?


Adam was the first man. He was monogamous-- so monogamy is the ideal.

Cain was the first with two wives. He was cursed anyways, so not the greatest role model.

Noah had one wife. His sons each had one wife.

Abraham had one wife, until Sarah persuaded him to take Hagar as his concubine.

Isaac had one wife.

Jacob wanted one wife, but was tricked into marrying two. And then his two wives had him take their slaves as concubines. We all know what a happy family they were… :wink:

Jacob, Moses, and Aaron all seemed to be monogamous, as far as we can tell.

By the time you get to the Judges, and the time you get to the Kings of Israel, polygamy has really picked up steam.

But in general, polygamy wasn’t unheard-of— but it was generally more equated with pagan influences on Jewish society, rather than being something intrinsically Jewish itself. So you’ve got your passages like your Ezekiel or your Jeremiah where God compares himself to a bridegroom, and Jerusalem to an unfaithful wife.

From the Jewish Encyclopedia, while it admits that Jews in Spain practiced polygamy as late as the 14th c and still has rules for conduct in countries that allow polygamy–

There is no Biblical evidence that any of the Prophets lived in polygamy. Monogamous marriage was used by them as a symbol of the union of God with Israel, while polygamy was compared to polytheism or idolatrous worship (Hos. ii. 18; Isa. l. 1; Jer. ii. 2; Ezek. xvi. 8). The last chapter of Proverbs, which is a description of the purity of home life, points to a state of monogamy. The marriage with one wife thus became the ideal form with the great majority of the people; and in post-exilic times polygamy formed the rare exception (Tobit i. 10; Susanna 63; Matt. xvii. 25, xix. 9; Luke i. 5). Herod, however, is recorded as having had nine wives (Josephus, “Ant.” xvii. 1, § 3).

The Mosaic law, while permitting polygamy, introduced many provisions which tended to confine it to narrower limits, and to lessen the abuse that might arise in connection with it. The Israelitish woman slave who was taken as a wife by the son of her master was entitled to all the rights of matrimony(see Husband and Wife), even after he had taken another wife; and if they were withheld from her, she had to be set free (Ex. xxi. 9-11; [see Slaves]. One who lived in bigamy might not show his preference for the children of the more favored wife by depriving the first-born son of the less favored one of his rights of inheritance (Deut. xxi. 15-17; [see Inheritance]. The king should not “multiply wives” ( ib. xvii. 17; comp. Sanh. 21a, where the number is limited to 18, 24, or 48, according to the various interpretations given to II Sam. xii. 8); and the high priest is, according to the rabbinic interpretation of Lev. xxi. 13, commanded to take one wife only (Yeb. 59a; comp. Yoma 2a).


The same feeling against polygamy existed in later Talmudic times. Of all the rabbis named in the Talmud there is not one who is mentioned as having lived in polygamy. The general sentiment against polygamy is illustrated in a story related of the son of R. Judah ha-Nasi (Ket. 62a). A peculiar passage in the Targum (Aramaic paraphrase) to Ruth iv. 6 points to the same state of popular feeling. The kinsman of Elimelech, being requested by Boaz to marry Ruth, said, “I can not redeem; for I have a wife and have no right to take another in addition to her, lest she be a disturbance in my house and destroy my peace. Redeem thou; for thou hast no wife.” This is corroborated by R. Isaac, who says that the wife of Boaz died on the day when Ruth entered Palestine (B. B. 91a). Polygamy, was, however, sanctioned by Jewish law and gave rise to many rabbinical discussions. While one rabbi says that a man may take as many wives as he can support (Raba, in Yeb. 65a), it was recommended that no one should marry more than four women ( ib. 44a). R. Ami was of the opinion that a woman had a right to claim a bill of divorce if her husband took another wife ( ib. 65a). The institution of the Ketubah, which was introduced by the Rabbis, still further discouraged polygamy; and subsequent enactments of the Geonim (see Müller’s “Mafteaḥ,” p. 282, Berlin, 1891) tended to restrict this usage.

An express prohibition against polygamy was pronounced by R. Gershom b. Judah, “the Light of the Exile” (960-1028), which was soon accepted in all the communities of northern France and of Germany. The Jews of Spain and of Italy as well as those of the Orient continued to practise polygamy for a long period after that time, although the influence of the prohibition was felt even in those countries. Some authorities suggested that R. Gershom’s decree was to be enforced for a time only, namely, up to 5000 A.M. (1240 C.E.; Joseph Colon, Responsa, No. 101; see Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, i. 10, Isserles’ gloss), probably believing that the Messiah would appear before that time; but this opinion was overruled by that of the majority of medieval Jewish rabbis. Even in the Orient monogamy soon became the rule and polygamy the exception; for only the wealthy could afford the luxury of many wives. In Africa, where Mohammedan influence was strongest, the custom was to include in the marriage contract the following paragraph: “The said bridegroom . . . hereby promises that he will not take a second wife during the lifetime of the said bride . . . except with her consent; and, if he transgresses this oath and takes a second wife during the lifetime of the said bride and without her consent, he shall give her every tittle of what is written in the marriage settlement, together with all the voluntary additions herein detailed, paying all to her up to the last farthing, and he shall free her by regular divorce instantly and with fitting solemnity.” This condition was rigidly enforced by the rabbinic authorities (see Abrahams, “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,” p. 120).


Perhaps they discovered that the quantity of problems is exponentially proportional to the number of wives.



@midori, that’s fascinating, thank you!


I suspect this played a strong point, even in Islam itself there is quite a lot of material historically which advises against taking a second wife unless you are very rich or know the women can get along. How common having multiple wives is in the Muslim world varies by territory as well. Just as a point of trivia, Mose’s wife’s father Jethro is considered the spiritual father of the Druze faith.


Some very rich Jews from Middle East when they come to the West they still practice polygamy but not officially. One(sometimes more than one) wife (concubine , lover) for pleasure , another for child bearing.


How is that different from simply keeping a mistress?


Sorry, i don’t know the englishness of English to see the difference , I can just confirm that for some of them there are two categories of women. One for pleasure another for childbearing


What I mean is, you make it sound like some Jews practice a form of polygamy today but it sounds indistinguishable from when a non-Jewish man takes a mistress - or am I missing something?


Probably some diaspora Jews (may be Yemen, Iraq) can practice polygamy , the same as some muslim diaspora from different countties , but in EU for example they will have a problem with their way of life.


I hope so!


I asked my (Lutheran) Pastor why it was OK for Old Testament believers to take more than one wife?
He replied “Who said it was OK in God’s eyes?”


Apparently your pastor has never read the passages in the Torah where God gave instructions for how to deal with multiple wives. If at that time in Israelite history He had wanted to express disapproval, that would have been the perfect time to do so.



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