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MONOGAMY , the custom and social or religious institution, often sanctioned by law, according to which a person can be married to only one single mate at a time. The discussion in this article is restricted to polygamy and monogamy in Jewish practice, since polyandry was absolutely forbidden by biblical law.

The Bible does not limit the right of a man to have more than one wife. Indeed, many instances are cited where a man has several wives (and *concubines) – a prevalent custom in the Ancient Near East. It seems, however, that due to economic conditions, most of the people did not practice polygamy or even bigamy. Indeed, practice was more monogamous than theory. The ethos underlying the creation story (Gen. 2), and the last chapter of Proverbs, is essentially monogamous. The situation changed during the Second Temple period. In addition to the economic factors which gave justifiable grounds to monogamy – factors applicable even more than in the First Temple period – the concept of mutual fidelity between husband and wife took root. Some men refrained from taking more than one wife because of an explicit agreement they had made with their first wife. Such agreements, preserved in Babylonian and Assyrian documents, are also to be found in the *Elephantine (Yeb) documents (Cowley, Aramaic, 44ff., no. 15, line 31ff. Bigamy and polygamy, while on the decrease, were mainly practiced among Hellenistic Jews (Joseph the *Tobiad, Herod, the administrator of Agrippa (Suk. 27a)), but they are also mentioned in the halakhah (Yev. 1:1–4; Ket. 10:1–6; Git. 2:7; Kid. 2:6–7; cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Tryphon, 134:1; 141:4), and occurred even in the families of sages (Yev. 15a). Bigamy took place sometimes because of a *levirate marriage or the sterility of the first wife. Yet despite the rare occurrence of polygamy, its explicit prohibition in the halakhah of the Dead Sea Sect that saw polygamy as a Pentateuchal prohibition (Damascus Document 4:20–5:5) was a complete innovation. Christianity adopted a similar attitude, which was in conformity with Jesus' approach to marriage and to divorce (Tit. 1:6; i Tim. 3:2, 12).

But even the Mishnah and the baraitot clearly reflect a situation which was almost completely monogamist (Yev. 2:10; etc.). Some sages preferred *ḥaliẓah ("levirate divorce") to yibbum ("levirate marriage" Bek. 1:7); others violently condemned marriage to two wives even for the purpose of procreation (Ket. 62b). According to R. Ammi a Palestinian amora, "Whoever takes a second wife in addition to his first one shall divorce the first and pay her ketubbah" (Yev. 65a). Such statements possibly reflect the influence of Roman custom which prohibited polygamy, especially since all the Jews of the empire became Roman citizens after 212 c.e. The Roman emperor *Theodosius issued a prohibition against the practice of bigamy and polygamy among Jews, but it did not disappear completely.

The Jews of Babylonia also practiced bigamy and polygamy, despite the Persian monogamistic background, and Rava said: "A man may marry several women in addition to his wife, on condition that he can provide for them" (Yev. 65a; cf. Ket. 80b; Pes. 113a). The sages however advised that one should not take more than four wives (and this would appear to be the source of the Muslim law which permits only four wives). Under the influence of the Muslim custom during the Babylonian geonic period, polygamous marriage became even more common (see Lewin, Oẓar, Yevamot (1936), 148–54). With the *Karaites, polygamy was a controversial issue. Bigamy was practiced among North African and Spanish Jews. There were women, however, who demanded that it be explicitly written in the document of marriage or in the ketubbah that the husband would not take a second wife.

In Germany and northern France polygamy was rare, mainly due to the economic conditions and to the influence of the Christian environment. It seems that at the beginning of the 12th century, the Jewish communities issued a regulation which forbade polygamy. Later, this regulation became a ḥerem (ban), attributed to R. *Gershom b. Judah. In the case of a levirate marriage, or the sterility of the first wife, the regulation was disregarded, while in cases where the wife had become insane (and could not therefore be divorced, see *Divorce) a regulation was introduced whereby the ḥerem could be lifted by 100 rabbis from three countries (or three communities). By the 13th century, however, it had already been decided that levirate marriage was to be abolished and ḥaliẓah performed instead. The ban on bigamous marriage however did not include a clause annulling the offender's second marriage (see Yev. 110a; bb 48b): For example, although the man had disregarded the ḥerem, broken the law, and married a second woman, his second marriage remained valid; but he could be compelled to divorce his second wife. The prohibition on bigamy became widespread in most countries of the Ashkenazi Diaspora, but not in Provence, Spain, North Africa, and among the Oriental communities, and it was accepted only by Ashkenazi halakhic authorities. Bigamy was however not common even in those localities where it had not been prohibited, including the Islamic countries.

In the Palestinian yishuv, bigamy was extremely rare, and in the State of Israel it is prohibited by law (the 1951 law on equal rights to women), although immigrants coming with more than one wife are allowed to maintain that status. In 1950 the Chief Rabbinate of Israel unanimously decided that ḥaliẓah was preferred to yibbum (Herzog, Heikhal Yiẓḥak, Even ha-Ezer, 1 (1960), 51n). See *Bigamy; *Marriage.


Z. Falk, Jewish Matrimonial Law in Middle Ages (1966), 1–34 (esp. 1 n.1, 34 n.3; exhaustive bibl.); P. Tishby, in: Tarbiz, 34 (1964/65), 49–55; Eidelberg, ibid., 287f.

[Moshe David Herr]

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