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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia


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Monogamy the Jewish Ideal.

In Judaism the Law tolerated though it did not enact polygamy; but custom stood higher than the Law. From the period of the return from the Babylonian Exile, monogamy became the ideal and the custom of Jewish married life. That monogamy was the ideal may be seen from several facts. Not only does the narrative of Genesis, containing the story of the first man and woman, point to monogamy, but Genesis 2:24 is best explained in the same sense. So, too, in the story of the Flood, in which the restoration of the human race is depicted, the monogamous principle is assumed. Also the polygamous marriages of some of the patriarchs are felt by the narrator (J) to need excuse and apology, as being infringements of a current monogamous ideal Even more unmistakable is the monogamous ideal displayed in the Wisdom literature. The "Golden A B C of the Perfect Wife" in Proverbs 31:10-31 is certainly monogamous; in fact, throughout the Book of Proverbs "monogamy is assumed" (Toy, "Proverbs," p.; comp. Cheyne, "Job and Solomon," p. 136). Ben Sira, moreover, as well as Tobit, confirms this conclusion (comp. History of Susanna 23, 69), though, while Ben Sira's view of woman is lower on the whole than that of the canonical Proverbs, Tobit's is quite as high as the highest ideal. Job is monogamous. So is the Song of Solomon. Harper gives a most convincing argument in this sense in his edition of the Song of Solomon (Cambridge, 1902; comp. especially pp. and ).

From another side the monogamous ideal is illustrated by the prophetic use of marriage as typical of the relation between God and Israel. In this sense monogamy becomes the corollary of the divine Unity (comp. Hamburger, "R. B. T." , s. "Vielweiberei"). It is a commonplace of prophetic imageryto describe God as the husband and Israel as the bride (comp. Hosea, passim; the exquisite passage Jeremiah 2:2; also ib. 3:14, 31:32), in contrast to idolatry, which is typical of impure married life (Isaiah 54:5, and many other passages). Infidelity toward God is expressed under the figure of whoredom (see Driver on Deuteronomy 31:16). The same figure of the relation of God to Israel passed over to the later Judaism; and a similar figure is prominent in Christianity also.

Legal Aspects.

As to the Law, the facts have already been treated in part under see see BIGAMY. Monogamy was not legally enforced. In the case of the LEVIRATE MARRIAGE, monogamy was legally invaded; otherwise, polygamy was merely tolerated and not set up as a laudable rule. But on the other hand the Law made several provisions which are of a nature to act as bars to polygamy. By positively prohibiting an Israelite eunuch-class (Deuteronomy 23:1) the possibility of the large Oriental harem was much diminished (see, however, Eunuch). Royal license in the matter of polygamy is denounced (Deuteronomy 17:17), and in later times it is chiefly the un-Jewish Herod who is represented as having a large harem. The high priest, in the traditional explanation of Leviticus 21:13, was restricted to one wife (Yoma 1:1; Yeb. 59a; Maimonides, "Yad," Issure Biah, 17:13). Perhaps the most effective deterrent of polygamy was the equality of rights established among a man's wives if he took more than one. The law of Exodus 21:10, "if he take himself another wife, her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, he shall not diminish," must in ancient as in medieval times have made polygamy unattractive, if not impossible, except to the very wealthy (comp. Luckock, "History of Marriage," 1894, pp. 13 et seq.). Again, the law of inheritance, by which the child of a second and favorite wife could not be preferred to the child of a less-beloved wife, must have stood as a bar to a second marriage. This law (Deuteronomy 21:15), by its use of the terms "hated" and "beloved" of the two wives, also gives incidentally the main social objection to polygamy, namely, the difficulty of maintaining under a polygamous régime cordial relations within the home (Nowack, "Hebräische Archäologie," 1:159). It is certain that polygamy did not largely prevail in Israel (ib. 158). Until strict monogamy generally established itself after the Exile, the Jew had for the most part only one wife, with, perhaps, a secondary consort of lower status (a similar custom is revealed by the code of Hammurabi; see Johns in Hastings, "Dict. Bible," extra vol., p. 599a).

It was the consideration of the difficulty of maintaining a happy home-life that practically abrogated polygamy among the Jews after the Exile. The ideal of Jewish family life is very high in the Wisdom literature; and the ideal continually rose with subsequent centuries. Güdemann rightly sees in this argument the strongest evidence of the monogamous condition of the Jews for centuries before monogamy was legally enforced (comp. Güdemann, "Das Judenthum," 1902, pp. 7 et seq.). It may be clearly seen from Psalms 128, in which the domestic happiness of the monogamist God-fearer is depicted. This psalm has thus been appropriately introduced into the Church marriage service, as well as into the Synagogue processional for the Bridegroom of the Law.

Josephus and the Talmud.

That polygamy survived into the Christian era is, however, asserted by Josephus ("Ant." 17:1, § 2); and he himself ("Vita," § 75) seems to have had one wife in Palestine and another in Egypt (comp. Löw, "Gesammelte Schriften," 3:47). Such a practise is forbidden by a baraita in Yeb. 37a; and this prohibition is (with certain limitations) introduced into the Shulḥan 'Aruk (Eben ha-'Ezer, 2:11). The Talmud certainly does not enact monogamy (BIGAMY); and as far as the Law is, concerned, Justin Martyr ("Dial. cum Tryph." § 134) is not wrong in asserting that in his time (2d cent. C.E.) Jews were permitted to have four or five wives. But it is very doubtful whether they availed themselves of the permission. Frankel ("Grundlinien des Mosaisch-Talmudischen Eherechts," 1860) maintains the prevalence of monogamy; and his view was not seriously shaken by the criticisms of Löw (c. pp. 48 et seq.), who does not contest Frankel's main position, but merely adduces some evidence to show that Frankel's conclusion was perhaps stated without sufficient reserve. It is not necessary to examine the details further here; for the main fact remains that the general impression made by the Talmudic evidence is altogether favorable to Frankel's contention (comp. the statement of Amram in "The Jewish Law of Divorce," 1897, p. 76, note 3: "There are many indications in the Mishnah that monogamy was the rule and polygamy the exception"; he cites Yeb. 2:9,10—on which Frankel also lays stress—where the presumption that a messenger bringing a document of divorce from foreign parts had assisted in divorcing the woman because he wished to marry her himself, is rebutted by the fact that he had a wife living at the time). It is, however, on the general impression that one relies in adopting the view of Frankel. Edersheim ("Hist. of the Jewish Nation," 1896, p. 272) is equally emphatic.

The Middle Ages.

The Jewish law reached the Middle Ages with polygamy permitted, but not much practised. Theoretically a man might have several wives if he wished, for R. Ami's view to the contrary does not seem to have been accepted (Yeb. 65a, below). So in his codification of the Jewish law, Maimonides ("Yad," Ishut,; comp. Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 1:9) makes it lawful for man to contract many simultaneous marriages. But this must not be taken to represent the personal opinion of Maimonides, especially if the letter attributed to him concerning the French (Provençal) rabbis be authentic. In that letter Maimonides scornfully attacks the practise of bigamy with an abusive vigor certainly unusual with him (on this letter see Kobak's "Jeschurun," 3:46-55). The law, as laid down in the Talmud and codified by Maimonides, required, however, that the husband should not only insure to each wife adequate maintenance (each wife could claim a separate domicile), but should also secure for each full conjugal rights. Suchrestrictions are essentially foreign to a polygamous condition.

Monogamy Becomes Jewish Law.

It may be inferred that, except in the case of childlessness, very few European Jews in the Middle Ages were other than monogamous. It must be remembered that in the Jewish view the purpose of marriage was not to satisfy carnal desires, but to raise up a family; hence it was not uncommon that a man was permitted and even urged to take a second wife when this purpose was unfulfilled. It is open to question whether a simultaneous marriage or a divorce of the first wife would be the more humane or expedient course; but while the Jewish theory as to the purpose of marriage prevailed, one or other course was natural in case of the wife's sterility. At all events when R. Gershom at the beginning of the eleventh century succeeded with the utmost ease in making monogamy the law for Western Jews, he was merely formalizing current practise (comp. Güdemann, "Gesch." 1:11, 2:165, 3:116; Abrahams, "Jewish Life in the Middle Ages," ch. ). Graetz's arguments to show that polygamy prevailed in Europe in R. Gershom's time are refuted by Harkavy in the Hebrew edition of Graetz (3:367, note ). On R. Gershom's celebrated ḥerem BIGAMY and Gershom B. Judah.

Conditions in the Orient.

In Mohammedan parts of Europe, as well as in the Orient generally, the law of monogamy was not, and is not, formally accepted. Occasional cases of bigamy are found in Spain as late as the fourteenth century (for a case in 1322 comp. Kayserling in "Monatsschrift," 1865, pp. 390-391, and add the evidence from the Responsa of Isaac b. Sheshet, 1901, § 20). But it may be doubted whether any clear cases can be produced of such marriages except for specific reasons which the Jewish theory of marriage regarded as adequate (comp., for instance, RaSHBA's testimony in Ṭur Eben ha-'Ezer). The objection in the Orient to Gershom's rule turned on this very point as well as on the levirate difficulty. That even in the Orient bigamy was against the sentiment of many may be seen from the customary undertaking (included in the ketubah) by the husband that he will not take a second wife. The insertion of such a clause is termed "customary" in the Ṭur Eben ha-'Ezer, § 119, near end (comp. Abrahams, c. p. 120, and Jew. Encyc. 7:476, s. KETUBAH). Thus in the East a voluntary promise often replaced what was law in the West. No doubt cases of bigamy still occur among Eastern Jews (see references in Westermarck, "History of Human Marriage," Index, s. "Jews"); but such cases are surprisingly rare. In addition to the citations in Kalisch (Commentary on Leviticus, 2:374), the following may be quoted: "As a rule, the Oriental Jews are practically monogamists" (Lucy Garnett, "The Women of Turkey," 1891, p. 12); "Bigamy [in Morocco] is also legal, though uncommon" (Budgett Meakin, "The Moors," 1902, p. 443); "They [the Yemenites] rarely marry more than one wife" (M. Thomas, "Two Years in Palestine and Syria," 1900, p. 40). For similar statements as to Teheran and Safed see "Revue des Ecoles de l'Alliance Israélite Universelle," No. 2, p. 166; No. 3, p. 195. It is indeed to the schools, now so beneficently established in most parts of the East, that one must look for a complete legalization of what is after all the ordinary rule and custom in regard to monogamy.

I. A.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Monogamy'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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