Polygamy, specifically polygyny (the practice of a man having multiple wives), has a complex history within Judaism. Its practice can be traced back to biblical times and is mentioned in various passages of the Torah. However, over time, Jewish communities developed different perspectives on polygamy, and its prevalence and acceptance varied among different groups. These days, in every community it is effectively banned and certainly looked down upon.
In the Tanakh, several prominent figures are described as having multiple wives, including Avraham, Yaakov, David, and Solomon, but even those without such a prominent or high-status role like Elkhanan, husband to Chana and father of Shmuel (Samuel). These examples indicate that polygyny was not uncommon in ancient Jewish society, as it was in the rest of the ancient world . The Torah neither explicitly prohibits nor endorses polygamy, but it does provide regulations to ensure justice and fairness within such relationships. Crucially also, they are always noted for being contentious relationships and even at the time would not provide the quality in a good marriage one would look for. In Exodus 21:10, a husband’s obligations to his wives are outlined.
Throughout modern Jewish history, the practice of polygamy continued among certain communities. However, by the 11th century, a significant change occurred with the cherem (ban) of Rabbeinu Gershom (Rabbi Gershom ben Judah), the preeminent Ashkenazi authority. This ban, also known as the “Cherem of Rabbeinu Gershom,” prohibited Ashkenazi Jewish men from marrying multiple wives. It is important to note that this ban was specific to Ashkenazi Jews and did not apply universally to all Jewish communities.
Rabbeinu Gershom’s cherem had a lasting impact on the Ashkenazi Jewish community, even past the proposed limit of the ban (1000 years), and the prohibition against polygamy became a permanent feature of Ashkenazi Jewish law.
Sephardic Jews, who follow the traditions and customs originating from Spain and Portugal, did not adopt this cherem, continuing to practice polygamy in certain regions and circumstances, though it became increasingly rare over time.However, other Jewish communities, such as the Sephardic and Yemenite Jews, did not adopt this ban. As a result, polygamy continued to be practiced among some Sephardic and Yemenite Jews for several centuries. This was in some part due to the fact that Ashkenazim by and large lived among Christian communities, who don’t allow polygamy compared to Sephardic and Yemenite Jews who lived among Muslims who certain did and in many places still do allow the practice.
It is worth mentioning that in modern Jewish communities, particularly among Sephardic and Yemenite Jews, ketubot (marriage contracts) are typically written to exclude the possibility of multiple wives. This practice ensures that the marriage is monogamous, in accordance with the prevailing norms of the broader society, without the need for a formal ban.
In contemporary times, the overwhelming majority of Jews worldwide, including both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, do not practice or even entertain the idea of polygamy. The influence of Rabbeinu Gershom’s cherem and the changing social norms over the centuries have led to a general consensus against polygamy within Jewish law.
It is crucial to understand that religious practices and interpretations evolve over time. The historical trajectory of polygamy in Judaism reflects this evolution, with the cherem of Rabbeinu Gershom playing a significant role in shaping Jewish marital norms among Ashkenazi Jews. However, it is important to recognize the diversity within Judaism, including the differing practices and customs of Sephardic and Yemenite Jews, as well as the contemporary consensus against polygamy within mainstream Jewish communities.