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How prevalent was polygamy among Jews in Biblical times?

I can only think of five Jews in Tanach who had multiple wives: Avraham, Yaakov, Elkanah, David, and Shlomo (although I probably missed a few). However, Avraham didn't marry Hagar until Sarah asked him to do so because of her infertility, and David and Shlomo were kings, so maybe they were unique in this regard.

Other well-known figures like Yitzchak, Yosef, Amram, Moshe, and so on have only one wife mentioned.

So was polygamy the exception or the rule in Biblical times? Did many or most Jewish men have multiple wives, or was this a rare, though permitted, occurance?

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    Esav had many .
    – Double AA
    May 11, 2014 at 3:43
  • @DoubleAA I clarified I'm referring to Jews.
    – Ypnypn
    May 11, 2014 at 13:08
  • @Ypnypn, Esav was a Jew (in the same sense that Yitzchak, Yosef and Amram were, anyway). Kiddushin 18a.
    – Yishai
    May 11, 2014 at 19:07
  • Some say that Moshe also had a second wife.
    – Scimonster
    May 12, 2014 at 5:51
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    @Scimonster, you mean this one? It doesn't suggest they were simultaneous, rather one after the other.
    – Yishai
    May 13, 2014 at 19:06

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It seems that polygamy was relatively rare.

One reason may have been that each wife had to be given their own household - in their own house - as the Rambam write in Hil. Ishus 14:4:

נושא אדם כמה נשים, אפילו מאה, בין בבת אחת, בין בזו אחר זו; ואין אשתו יכולה לעכב עליו: והוא שיהיה יכול ליתן שאר כסות ועונה, כראוי לכל אחת ואחת. ואינו יכול לכוף אותן לשכון בחצר אחת, אלא כל אחת ואחת לעצמה

Thus, multiple wives meant being rather wealthy.

We see multiple times in the Talmud that it was assumed one only married one wife; offhand I can't think of a good example, yet.

Note that the term for a co-wife in Hebrew is צרה - lit. trouble - and co-wives were assumed to hate each other - to the extent that we assume they scheme against each other. For example, they cannot be trusted to report their husband died - as we assume they are scheming against the co-wife to get her to remarry and thus forbid her to her husband.

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  • Doesn't צרה literally mean 'bound [together]', like צררות בשמלותם על שכמם?
    – Double AA
    Sep 17, 2015 at 20:40
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    @DoubleAA שמואל א - מצודת ציון-שמואל א פרק-א פסוק ו - צרתה . שתי נשים מאיש אחד תקראנה צרות , והוא מלשון צר ואויב , כי על פי רוב שונאות זו לזו Sep 20, 2015 at 8:53
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    The Rambam doesn't say that each wife HAD to be given their own household, just that he couldn't FORCE them to live together in the same courtyard. That implies that if they agreed to such an arrangement, of living all together in the same courtyard, it would be OK halachically. May 14, 2023 at 22:46

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