Why Torah Allowed Polygamy

Posted by on Mar 19, 2023

The proper form of sexuality is the source of life, and nothing is more intimate than the sexual act between a husband and a wife. When the intimacy between a husband and a wife is abused or misused, nothing can be more destructive to the human soul, family, and society than the degradation of a wife in the abomination of sexual immorality of polygamy: the society will break too, sooner or later. It is inevitable.

Adultery and fornication of both man and woman are seen as against the sacredness of marriage as the Creator’s given right for the propagation of the human race. And although it is addressed primarily to the man and to the whole nation of Israel, it applies equally to the woman as to the man, because the family is the building block of human society, while the Torah is the foundation of it.

Common sense does not allow us to say that the Torah allows polygamy. And a careful Torah scholar should note that the Torah does not allow a husband to have wives and concubines at his will—that would be polygamy foreign and contrary to the Torah. Much less the Torah commands a man to have two or more wives. 

Yet, there are many examples in the Hebrew Scripture of a man having more than one wife. This raises the inevitable question: How can this be? Still on the same line of thought, how are we to understand the statement that the Creator made a man and a woman and blessed their union in a sacred matrimony? In the following, we will explain.

Did the Torah allow polygamy?

Torah presents the original type of marriage of Adam and Chavah, as monogamous. The Creator did not create one Adam and two Chavahs, or one Chavah and two Adams, but one He made them. Yet, it is remarkable that the Torah seemingly allows polygamy. The verses in question allegedly allow polygamy, saying,

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then* it shall be, on the day he makes his sons to inherit his possessions, he is not allowed to treat the son of the beloved wife as firstborn in the face of the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. (Deu 21:15-16)

Grammar note: The conditional clauses that begin with “if” or “when” are typically completed by a second clause that begin with “then”. In Hebrew, the if-then clause is typically introduced by the particle כי, kiy, but Hebrew has no word for “then”. Instead of “then”, Hebrew may use the word vav, “and”, to express “then” and open the second clause. We now return to the text.

Thus, it will be clear to the reader that the perception of alleged polygamy is expressed by the phrase, “If a man has two wives, then it shall be”. We will explain that this is not the way to interpret this verse, since no Scriptural verse can lose its literal meaning. The Torah did not wish to associate the phrase “If a man has two wives” with a statement which may lead the reader to prematurely conclude that polygamy was meant here, since this law does not command polygamy at all, nor does it prohibit it either, but it simply says “if/when has two wives”.

One cannot argue that if a man has two wives, then he is not allowed to treat the son of the beloved wife favorably. And let this not be a cause of wonder to us, for it is written so.

To understand this law, we need to invoke one of the fundamental principles of the Torah expressed in Sifrei Mattoth 7: Scripture states “to prohibit” — to prohibit what is permitted, but not to permit what is prohibited. In other words, what is permissible one can prohibit. And what is prohibited, one cannot permit. Why is that?

Scripture does not come to make things obscure but to explain. We must therefore view these verse as telling us that this is the law of two or more wives in the family, one loved and the others unloved. By taking two wives, the husband would have wives who would fight within the family and hate each other. This law applies also to the case in which the husband has married two or more wives loved equally.

Rachel and Leah. Did the patriarch love them both?

Rachel, Leah, Torah and polygamy: “And a woman under her sister you shall not take to be a rival to her”.

Besides the monogamy, every instance of polygamy in the Torah is related directly to some sort of strife between competing wives in the family, as in the case of Ya’akov and his wives, Leah and Rachel.

Ya’akov fell in love with his uncle’s younger daughter Rachel. But on the wedding night he was tricked by Lavan to marry his oldest daughter Leah instead and only then to marry the woman of his heart, Rachel.

In return, Lavan gave Zilpah to his daughter Leah for a handmaid (Gen 29:24), and Bilhah to Rachel to be her handmaid (Gen 29:29). According to the Jewish tradition [Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 36], Bilhah and Zilpah were Lavan’s daughters from a concubine. Therefore, Bilhah and Zilpah were [half] sisters of Leah and Rachel.

That bigamy or polygamy of Ya’akov must not be judged according to the Torah, which prohibits marriage with two women (Lev 18:18), since there was no such a law in existence back then.

And thou shalt not take a woman to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her lifetime. (Lev 18:18 JPS)

Note: “Do not marry two sisters” is the common interpretation of Lev 18:18, but it says literally in Hebrew: ve’ishah el ahotah, “and a woman under her sister you shall not take”, meaning when the first woman is still alive you shall not take another one. Or it also implies that if the first wife is dead then take another one but not in the lifetime of the first. Thus said, Lev 18:18 is not to be understood as “do not take two sisters”, although the second wife could be her sister. We now return to the text.

And the rivalry between the unloved and the loved wives of Ya’akov began: Ya’akov fathered six sons from Leah, his unloved wife: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Issachar, and Zevulun, and two sons from Rachel, his beloved wife: Yoseph and Binyamin.

But in that rivalry for the first place, Leah and Rachel used their handmaids to obtain more children in order to “be built up” through them. And Ya’akov fathered sons from their handmaids—from Bilhah: Dan and Naphtali, and from Zilpah: Gad and Asher.

Despite the fact that Leah, the unloved wife who just wanted to be loved by her husband, made up the bulk of Israel’s heirs, more than all the other wives combined, and her children were the oldest of all his sons, yet, Ya’akov loved the beautiful Rachel more than Leah, and Rachel’s son Yoseph was clearly Ya’akov’s most beloved one.

Reuven, the son of the unloved wife, in his jealousy to protect his mother’s status and reputation in the family, as a first wife of Ya’akov after Rachel’s death, defiled Bilhah in order to degrade her to a lower status of “concubine” in the eyes of the other members of the family.

Reuven’s sin of violating his father’s wife, Bilhah, gives Ya’akov the reason to lower his station of firstborn. What Ya’akov did with Reuven, the firstborn of his unloved wife Leah, and Yoseph, the firstborn son of the loved wife Rachel, violates the law in Deuteronomy. But this law had not yet existed and here it is introduced to amend what was done in Genesis.

Similar is the case of Avraham’s two wives, Sarah and Hagar, who competed for their status in the family, but this case is not the same case of Leah and Rachel, who were of equal status.

With that said, the law in Deuteronomy 21 has both cases in mind and relates to both forms of marriage known in the ancient world: when a man takes a surrogate mother (the case of Hagar) and when he has more than one wife (the case of Ya’akov). Either way, the purpose of this law is to enforce the impartial treatment of the weak wife in the marriage and her sons, who would be especially vulnerable to mistreatment, and Deuteronomy takes their case. The law in Deuteronomy makes no provision for any exceptions, but instead it clearly states that both sons must be treated impartially and regardless of the status of their mothers.

Whether the change to a lower state of the unloved wife is due to her outward appearance or any other reason, the Torah attempts to shield her from the worst consequences the wife may meet in the society.

Perhaps, to better understand the law in Deuteronomy 21, we need to first understand how the social life and human experience were functioning in their historical context. Back in the ancient times, the size of the family mattered: the bigger the family is the stronger and therefore the more prosperous it is. At that time there was no social security, welfare, or any governmental provision of economic assistance to persons in need as we have them today. If a family had one or two children (the average size of a western family), it would have slight chances to survive in the ancient times.

For example, an agrarian or nomadic society whose male population was decimated by war would experience a great deal of hardship in the economy and reproduction. Women in order to survive and provide for their children would need to remarry. But if the male population was decimated in war, or in the case of a diseased husband, how would a widow remarry and be the only wife in the family?

But if polygamy was forbidden by the Torah, then a married man could not marry his deceased brother’s widow or any woman. And yet according to the law of levirate marriage, he would have to in order to provide for his brother’s wife. Hence, the law of levirate marriage in Deu 25:5-10 was given to regulate the marriage of the widow of a diseased brother.

Similarly, a barren wife, who could not give children to the family (i.e., workforce) to help in the field, would find insecurity in the family and in the society. In such situations, the if-then clause in the Torah provides legal regulations in the society for the sake of surviving of the woman and the family as a whole.

But the Torah permits a husband to have a second wife, in the cases of wars, or death of husband, which should be seen as a form of compassion and preservation of the family, not as satisfying a sexual desire as it would be seen today.

However, do we find examples in the Scripture of polygamy? The most exemplary case is the case of King Shlomo (Solomon), who had 1,000 wives and concubines. But this case is contrary to the Torah, not according to the Torah. The original form of marriage established by the Creator was and still is one man and one woman, as it was from the very beginning of the world. It is for this reason that it was said,

Therefore, shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh. (Gen 2:24 JPS)

Does Judaism allow polygamy?

The arranged marriages were a customary practice in the ancient world, when the marriages of the children were arranged by the fathers. Avraham sent his servant to find a wife for Yitschak (Gen 24:2-61) and Yehudah arranged the marriage of his first-born son (Gen 38:6). Following this Biblical tradition, the Judaism says it is the father’s duty to find a wife for his son (Kiddushin 29a).

As we explained above, there was also the practice of having more than one wife, as it was the case of our patriarchs with the exception of Yitschak. But does Judaism allow polygamy today? Judaism does not allow polygamy.

Ezra the scribe, who is considered the founder of Judaism (see Ezr 7:10, 25; Neh 8:2-9), upon the return from the Babylonian exile forced the Jews to expel the foreign [unconverted] wives they had taken with them from Babylon (Ezr 10:2, 10), and since then no polygamy has ever been seen in Israel, as we find no case of polygamy in the Apostolic Writings in the first century Judea.

Polygamy was formally banned in Ashkenazi communities by Rabbeinu Gershom in the year 1000 C.E. This ban was extended to the Sephardi Jews as well, to fulfill the Biblical law that man is to have only one wife and a woman only one husband, and they are to become one (Gen 2:24, Ecc 9:9).

If our line of reasoning is correct and this explanation is accepted, then, why did the Torah allow polygamy in the past? The Torah allowed it for the sake of the vulnerable woman, but it does not allow it today for the sake of sexual morality.

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