“Polygamy and Jewish Tradition”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teizei, we learn of the special privileges accorded to the first born son.

In ancient times, after death, a person’s estate passed to his sons. Only if there were no sons would the estate pass to the daughters. But daughters who inherited were required to marry within their own tribe so that the patrimony would not revert to another tribe. In Deuteronomy 21:15-17, the Torah tells us that the first born son receives a double inheritance portion. Thus, if a person has three sons, the estate is divided into four parts and the first born son receives half, while the other two sons share the other half. Although I have not seen this theory in any of the traditional sources, my own gut feeling is that the additional portion given to the first son may be due to the fact that parents always experiment with the first child. Since the first child serves as a virtual guinea pig for inexperienced parents, the child is compensated by receiving a larger share of the legacy. Logically, the principle should apply to first born daughters as well, but we’ll have to wait for Elijah the Prophet to explain why that is not so.

The Torah portion that teaches us of the special privileges accorded to the first born son begins with the expression (Deuteronomy 21:15), “Ki te’hee’yeh’nah l’ish sh’tay nah’shim, ha’ah’chat ah’hu’vah v’ha’ah’chat s’nu’ah.” If a man has two wives, one loved and the other hated….he may not make the son of the loved one the first born, before the son of the hated, who is the first born. The commentaries point out that the terms “loved” and “hated” are relative terms, that really connote that one wife is preferred over the other. The Midrash, Tanaim on Deuteronomy 21:15, cites Rabbi Ishmael who said, “Human experience shows that in every bigamist marriage, one wife is always more loved than the other.”

So what, after all, is the Torah’s view on multiple wives? The Torah clearly frowns on polygamist relationships. Perhaps the clearest indication that the Torah strongly opposes a man having more than one wife is the statement in Leviticus 18:18, “V’ish’ah el ah’cho’tah loh ti’kach, l’tzror…” A man is prohibited from taking as a wife two sisters who will be enemies to one another. Samuel 1:6 relates that the prophet Samuel’s father, Elkanah, had two wives, Hannah and P’ninah. Scripture there says that P’ninah was a tzarah to Hannah, a source of great pain. The verse clearly calls the second wife nothing less than a “great pain.” That, in fact, may very well be the source of the Yiddish expression, tzuros. It all emanates from a man having more than one wife.

In every single instance in scripture where a man has more than one wife, the man has his hands full. So it is with Abraham–Sara and Hagar, and so it is with Jacob–Rachel and Leah. While the Torah did permit a king to have numerous wives for political and perhaps mercenary reasons, it also restricts the number of wives that he may have. Deuteronomy 17:17: “V’lo yar’beh lo nah’shim.” According to Jewish tradition, a king is permitted to have up to 18 wives. The Bible tells us that King Solomon, the wisest man of all, violated this rule and his many wives led him astray, resulting in great strife in his life.

Conceptually, it makes sense why the Torah permitted a man to have more than one wife, but forbade a woman from having more than one husband. Every child, after all, is entitled to know who both his biological mother and father are. If a woman had more than one husband it would never be clear who was the actual biological father. Yet, if a man were to have more than one wife it would still be clear who are the biological mother and the biological father.

What remains unclear is why the Torah permitted multiple wives at all. We may speculate on a number of reasons. Perhaps because men are always sexually available, while women, who menstruate, are not. Perhaps because of the Talmudic dictum (Yebamoth 118b) that a woman prefers to live a life of grief than to live alone. Whatever the rationale, it is clear that the Torah does not regard having multiple wives as a very healthy structure for family. Perhaps that is why on the heels of our portion dealing with strife in the family comes the portion of the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the wayward and rebellious child. Polygamy, the bible suggests, affects the children–-strongly and negatively.

In light of the above, the Rabbinic quote found in Midrash Rabbah Genesis 8 reflects uncommon wisdom: Man cannot survive without woman, neither can woman without man, and both cannot survive without the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.