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?

  • 3
    Esav had many . – Double AA May 11 '14 at 3:43
  • @DoubleAA I clarified I'm referring to Jews. – Ypnypn May 11 '14 at 13:08
  • @Ypnypn, Esav was a Jew (in the same sense that Yitzchak, Yosef and Amram were, anyway). Kiddushin 18a. – Yishai May 11 '14 at 19:07
  • Some say that Moshe also had a second wife. – Scimonster May 12 '14 at 5:51
  • 1
    @Scimonster, you mean this one? It doesn't suggest they were simultaneous, rather one after the other. – Yishai May 13 '14 at 19:06

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.

  • Doesn't צרה literally mean 'bound [together]', like צררות בשמלותם על שכמם? – Double AA Sep 17 '15 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 – Danny Schoemann Sep 20 '15 at 8:53

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