“Polygamy and Jewish Tradition
(Updated and revised from Kee Teitzei 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, 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, unless there were no sons. In that case, the estate would pass to the daughters, but daughters who inherit were required to marry within their own tribe so that the patrimony not revert to another tribe.

In Deuteronomy 21:15-17, the Torah states that a 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.

Why should this be? My own quirky theory is that the additional portion given to the first son may be due to the fact that first-time parents always experiment with the first-born child. Since the first child serves as a virtual guinea pig for inexperienced parents, the child is later compensated by receiving a larger share of the legacy.  The problem with that theory, of course, is that logically the principle should apply to first born daughters as well!  But, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for Elijah the Prophet to explain why that is not so.

The Torah portion, Deuteronomy 21:15, that pronounces the special privileges accorded to the first-born son begins with the expression, כִּי תִהְיֶיןָ לְאִישׁ שְׁתֵּי נָשִׁים, הָאַחַת אֲהוּבָה וְהָאַחַת שְׂנוּאָה , 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 no one is really “hated,” but rather, one wife is preferred over the other. The Midrash Tannaim 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 polygamous relationships.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the Torah strongly opposes a man having more than one wife is the statement in Leviticus 18:18, וְאִשָׁה אֶל אֲחֹתָהּ, לֹא תִקָּח לִצְרֹר A man is prohibited from taking as a wife two sisters who will be enemies to one another. In I Samuel 1:6, we learn that the prophet Samuel’s father, Elkanah, had two wives, Hannah and Peninah. Scripture there refers to Peninah as צָרָתָהּ tzaratah, Hannah’s rival, a source of great pain and distress. The verse clearly refers to the second wife as 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 nevertheless restricts the number of wives that he may have. The Torah in Deuteronomy 17:17 states: וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ נָשִׁים . He [the king] may not have many wives. 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, there is logic to why the Torah permits a man to have more than one wife, but forbids 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 child’s biological parents.

What remains unclear is why the Torah permitted multiple wives at all. Several speculative reasons may be suggested. 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 a healthy design for family. Perhaps, that is why on the heels of our portion dealing with family strife, comes the portion of the בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה , 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, on Genesis 8, reflects uncommon wisdom: Man cannot survive without woman, neither can woman survive without man, and both cannot survive without the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.