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I've recently been looking into polygamy (having more than 1 wife), and had a few cultural questions.

Was polygamy accepted at the time of David and Solomon? Were there any laws about it?

Was polygamy accepted during the first century? How common was it in the first century?

Are there any laws on having more than 1 wife in Judaism today? How common is polygamy in Jewish culture today?

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You've come to the right place.

  • The Bible explicitly allowed a man to have more than one wife. Exodus 21:10 talks about making sure the first wife still gets the same resources and attention now that she's not the only one.
  • So yes, it was accepted in the times of Kings David and Solomon. Those kings are recorded as having quite a few wives (though Deuteronomy 17:17 warns against having too many, "lest his heart be swayed." (King David is recorded as having six; Solomon married way too many, apparently as a form of diplomacy with surrounding nations, and it appeared not to have gone well for him.) We don't know how prevalent it was for the average commoner in that era. Samuel's father, for instance, had two wives. My sense is the average was probably 1.3 or so.
  • The best record we have, from a traditional Jewish perspective, on first-century life would be the Talmud, the first stages of which were published around the year 200. Any legal matter pertaining to marriage very clearly accounted for the possibility of more than one wife -- e.g. the Talmud discusses how to divide an estate between multiple wives, or how levirate marriage works if there's more than one wife. There is one mention of a limit of 4, just as a practical matter of how much um, "physical attention", a normal guy can be expected to provide to all these women. (A recent TV show addressed this issue with a character rushed to the emergency room due to an overdose of blue pills.) There was similar concern for a fellow who traveled between two far-flung places and had a wife and children in each place, that the half-siblings may one day grow up, meet and marry, not knowing of their relationship. (Today this could be solved by DNA testing).
  • However, when describing guidelines for a life of wisdom, the Talmud warns "the more wives, the more witchcraft" -- you can read that literally, or simply as describing the difficult machinations that can ensue between co-wives. (Similarly, the book of Ecclesiasticus, written close to the first century, speaks of a father worrying that his grown and married daughter "may turn to witchcraft", i.e. her marriage may fall apart.) Note that co-wives are referred to by the Talmud as tzarot, i.e. "competitors." Studying the various stories of interactions between rabbis and their wives in the Talmud (and there are many such stories), virtually none involve more than one wife. So it's hard to tell how often it was done.
  • Around the year 1000, the rabbinic leadership of Jewry living in France and Germany (or "Ashkenazic" Jews, many of whom would later migrate to Eastern Europe) declared a ban on polygamy, which still stands today. Hence in the English-speaking world today it's virtually unheard of.
  • The ban never extended to the Jews of the Mediterranean or Northern Africa (known as "Sephardic" Jews). In some communities some ban caught on at some point, and in others polygamy was still not-unheard-of 100 years ago. Jewish marriage contracts from 200 years ago in the Arabic-speaking world often contained a penalty clause if the husband took an additional wife without the first one's permission.
  • In the twentieth century, nearly all Jews from the Arabic-speaking world immigrated to countries speaking European languages (US, Europe, South America, etc.), or to Israel. In the former, polygamy is banned, both by civil law and by de facto Ashkenazic majority standard. In Israel the situation is a bit more complex; my understanding is that 50 years ago, a new Yemeni immigrant to Israel would have been allowed to keep his two wives; today Israeli law increasingly insists on monogamy.
  • So it's virtually unheard of today.

In short, here's how I view polygamy vis-a-vis Judaism:

It's a lot like eating grasshoppers. Yes, the Bible allowed it, though never said it was a good thing. Nobody does it today except for a few Yemenites.

Lastly, and forgive the legal nitty-gritty, on very rare occasion there can be pro forma polygamy today: if a couple's marriage has fallen apart beyond repair (usually this involves a civil divorce), and the husband has made every reasonable effort to go through a religious divorce ritual with his wife but she refuses to cooperate, then if all other options have been exhausted, a lengthy process involving the signature of 100 rabbis can allow the man to leave the ritual divorce document in escrow for his first wife, and then re-marry. So technically Judaism would regard him as married to two women at the same time, but at no point would he come home to two "wives."

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Regarding the ban of 1000 years ago, see also judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/4901/… –  Isaac Moses Nov 1 '11 at 20:10
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How can the average number of wives per man be greater than 1? Did ancient Israel have a skewed sex ratio? –  Daniel ben Noach Nov 2 '11 at 0:02
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That's a very good question. I recall a study looking at the at-birth sex ratio of Britain before and going into WWII -- turns out when there's national stress, the female ratio goes up. "Appears to be nature's way of improving the odds", or something to that effect, was the quote from the scientist. It's also possible that more males died of war, disease, or the like. –  Shalom Nov 2 '11 at 2:22
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Thank you for the well informed answer. –  stringo0 Nov 2 '11 at 21:11
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@DanielbenNoach, perhaps men married later in life than women. (Just a conjecture.) –  msh210 Nov 2 '11 at 22:12
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Halacha absolutely permits polygamy for sphardim. There are two rabbinic decrees concerning polygamy. The shulchan aruch limits the number of wives to four and for Ashkenazim there is an outright ban imposed by Rabbi Gershon the light of the exile around 1000 years ago. Being that these are rabbinic mitzvot they are nullified with the building of the third Temple then any Jewish man can have as many wives as he can afford

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?? Rabbinic commands will be nullified by the building of the third temple? How do you know this? –  Double AA Jan 8 at 3:23
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Up to approximately 1000 years ago when Rabbeinu Gershom banned polygamy, Jews were allowed under Jewish law to have more than one wife. The Ashkenazim accepted this prohibition from Rabbeinu Gershom, however the Sephardim did not. However since most Sephardic Jews today live in locations where it is not legally acceptable, therefore even amongst the Sephardim it is uncommon.

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Wasn't the ban time limited? –  Robert S. Barnes Oct 3 '13 at 19:39
    
The law of Rabbi Gershon has expired. However, He never had the right to make the law of marring only one wife. In order to make that law legal it would of had to go through the Sanhedrin which was not around when he made this law. –  Yaniv Mar 6 at 2:04
    
@Yaniv, Rabbeinu Tam re-affrimed the ban, as did the synod of Shu"m (Speyer, Worms [Vormeißa], and Mainz). Furthermore, the continous re-affirmation by Ashkenazim seems to contradict that. –  Noach mi Frankfurt Jul 18 at 0:11
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