ZARAH — A co-wife, a married woman in relation to the other wives of her husband.
Polygamy is a Jewish institution. It is practiced, albeit underground, in Israel today. If the present trend to Orthodoxy among Jews continues, we can expect open polygamy to return soon.
Even for the most Westernized Jews, polygamy (polygyny) is difficult to confront. They obviously feel uncomfortable with the subject: we see them minimize it, excuse it, and defend it (for example, see The Jewish Encyclopedia, Appendix A).
Writing about marriage, the Very Reverend the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, the late Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, states:
The Biblical ideal of human marriage is the monogamous one. The Creation story and all the ethical portions of Scripture speak of the union of a man with one wife. Whenever a Prophet alludes to marriage, he is thinking of such a union — lifelong, faithful, holy. Polygamy seems to have well-nigh disappeared in Israel after the Babylonian Exile. Early Rabbinic literature presupposes a practically monogamic society; and out of 2800 teachers mentioned in the Talmud, one only is stated to have had two wives.
— Rabbi Dr. Hertz (1)
The Talmud Challenges Rabbi Dr. Hertz
Most rabbinical scholars (including Rabbi Dr. Hertz) attribute the organization of the Mishnahs to Judah the Prince. The year of his birth is given as 132 or 135 A.D. A number of these Mishnahs organized by Judah the Prince address legal problems that arise from the practice of polygamy. That suggests that polygamy was very much alive in the centuries before and after the birth of Jesus.
That polygamy was an ordinary part of Jewish life is also suggested by Rev. Dr. Israel W. Slotki's Introduction to the Tractate Kethuboth. Rev. Dr. Slotki states this of Chapter X:
CHAPTER X determines the priority of the claims to the recovery of their kethubahs and to exemption from oath of two or more wives who were married to the same husband, the relative rights of their respective heirs, and the legal position in the event of the surrender by one of the women of her claim to distrain on the buyer of her deceased husband's estate.
— Rev. Dr. Slotki (17)
(Note: When excerpting quotations from the Talmud, we sometimes omit non-germane text and footnotes. Omission of text is indicated by an ellipsis (…). To see the full text and footnotes, follow the hot link at the end of the excerpt. It is our pleasure to make available on line a number of Talmud tractates, so that you can see the excerpt in full context. We indicate unprintable Hebrew characters, words, and phrases with the symbol [H].)
This Mishnah addresses a man with two wives:
MISHNAH. IF A MAN WAS MARRIED TO TWO WIVES AND THEY DIED, AND SUBSEQUENTLY HE HIMSELF DIED, AND THE ORPHANS [OF ONE OF THE WIVES] CLAIM THEIR MOTHER'S KETHUBAH [BUT THE ESTATE OF THE DECEASED HUSBAND] IS ONLY ENOUGH [FOR THE SETTLEMENT OF THE] TWO KETHUBAHS [ALL THE ORPHANS] RECEIVE EQUAL SHARES.
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 91a
This Mishnah addresses a man with three wives:
MISHNAH. IF A MAN WHO WAS MARRIED TO THREE WIVES DIED, AND THE KETHUBAH OF ONE WAS A MANEH, OF THE OTHER TWO HUNDRED ZUZ, AND OF THE THIRD THREE HUNDRED ZUZ AND THE ESTATE [WAS WORTH] ONLY ONE MANEH [THE SUM] IS DIVIDED EQUALLY.
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 93a
This Mishnah addresses a man with four wives:
MISHNAH. IF A MAN WHO WAS MARRIED TO FOUR WIVES DIED, HIS FIRST WIFE TAKES PRECEDENCE OVER THE SECOND, THE SECOND TAKES PRECEDENCE OVER THE THIRD AND THE THIRD OVER THE FOURTH. …
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kethuboth 93b
Here the Sages discuss the justification for marrying multiple wives.
MISHNAH. NEITHER SHALL HE MULTIPLY WIVES TO HIMSELF (4) — ONLY EIGHTEEN. R. JUDAH SAID: HE MAY HAVE MORE, PROVIDED THEY DO NOT TURN AWAY HIS HEART. R. SIMEON SAID: HE MUST NOT MARRY EVEN ONE WHO MAY TURN AWAY HIS HEART. WHY THEN IS IT WRITTEN, NEITHER SHALL HE MULTIPLY WIVES TO HIMSELF? (5) — EVEN THOUGH THEY BE WOMEN LIKE ABIGAIL. (6)
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 21a
Soncino Rabbinical scholar and translator Jacob Shachter amplifies the text with footnotes:
— Jacob Shachter
Why Is Polygamy OK?
In the above cited Mishnah, Talmud scholar and translator Jacob Shachter tells us the Sages base their justification of polygamy on Deuteronomy 17:17. For full context, let us look at Deuteronomy 17:14-17.
— Deuteronomy 17:14-17 (KJV)
We see that Deuteronomy 17:17 concerns limitation on the number of wives permitted to future kings of Israel. However, the Sages appear to understand Deuteronomy 17:17 as a rule for all men. They also understand it to permit rather than prohibit multiple wives.
What Is the Limit? 4, 12, 24, 48?
The Sages disagree about the number of wives permitted.
GEMARA. … Rabina objected: Why not assume that 'kahennah' implies twelve, and 'we-kahennah', twenty-four? It has indeed been taught likewise: 'He shall not multiply wives to himself beyond twenty-four.' And according to him who interprets the redundant 'waw', it ought to be forty-eight.
— Tractate Sanhedrin 21a
LEVIRATE MARRIAGE. The marriage between a man and the widow of his dead brother who has died childless. (V. HALIZAH).
In Jewish Law, if a husband dies, and he and his wife have had no children, the oldest brother of the dead man may take the widow as a wife, even if the brother is already married. The law is based on Deuteronomy 25:5-10
Widow May Be Raped
There is a difference between Old Testament law and Talmud law on levirate marriages. Under Talmud law, the widow who does not want to take the brother as her husband may be raped, thereby effecting the marriage.
GEMARA. … A YEBAMAH IS ACQUIRED BY INTERCOURSE. Whence do we know [that she is acquired by intercourse? — Scripture saith, [14a] Her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife. Then perhaps she is like a wife in all respects? (6) — You may not think so. For it was taught: I might think that money or deed can complete her acquisition, just as intercourse does; therefore it is written, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her', (7) teaching, intercourse alone completes the acquisition of her, but money or deed does not complete the acquisition of her. Yet perhaps what is the purpose of 'and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her'? It is that he can taker her by force? (8) — If so, Scripture should have stated, 'and perform the duty of a husband's brother', (9) why [add] 'unto her'? Hence both are learnt from it. (10)
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 13b-14a
The translator, Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, amplifies the text with footnotes:
— Rabbi Dr. Freedman
The doctrine is repeated in Tractate Yebamoth:
GEMARA. … Another [Baraitha] taught: Her husband's brother shall go in unto her, in the natural way; and take her, even though in an unnatural way; and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her, only the cohabitation consummates her marriage, but neither money nor deed can consummate her marriage; and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her, even against her will.
— Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamoth 54a
Laws of Yebamoth Regulate Levirate Marriages
An entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Yebamoth, consisting of 15 chapters, is devoted to regulating levirate marriages. Rev. Dr. Israel W. Slotki made this comment about levirate marriages in his Introduction to the Yebamoth; (halizah is the shoe ceremony described in Deuteronomy 25:9, cited above).
In practical life, however, both marriage and halizah bristle with difficulties and are hedged in by a complexity of problems.
— Rev. Dr. Slotki (11)
Rev. Dr. Slotki made further comment about the relationship between the various wives in a polygamous Jewish family. It was apparently bitter, and expected to be so. We have already seen the definition of zarah, co-wife. Talmud scholar Rev. Dr. Israel W. Slotki, in his translation of the Soncino Tractate Yebamoth, informs us that the word zarah means literally "rival" or "adversary," and is derived from "oppression." In his very first footnote, he tells us that the relationship between the wives was often bitter.
Heb., zarah, [H] 'rival'. Where a husband has more than one wife, each woman is a zarah in relation to the other. The term is derived from [H] which signifies oppression, hence 'rival', 'adversary', as in I Sam. I, 6 (cf. Kimhi a.l.), or 'to tie up', 'to bind', hence 'associate', 'co-wife'.
— Rev. Dr. Slotki (12)
This translation of the Hebrew word zarah is confirmed by The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle "Ask the Rabbi" columnist, David Fine, who is spiritual leader of Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for co-wives is 'tzara' — enemies!
— David Fine (10)
The reader is referred to the Tractate Yebamoth to learn more about levirate marriages and other sexual laws and customs. We also include the Biblical account of the three-way relationship between Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. See Appendix B: Polygamy and the Slave Hagar.
Levirate Marriages Do Not Explain Polygamy
When discussing polygamy, many rabbinical commentators focus on levirate marriages. However, as we can see in the above Mishnahs governing men with two, three, and four wives, and the argumentation about how many wives are permitted (up to 48?) levirate marriages did not wholly explain Jewish polygamy. It is not credible that a man could acquire 4, 18, 24, or perhaps even 48 wives by marrying the widows of his 4, 18, 24, or 48 brothers who died childless. Moreover, Tractate Kiddushin (not available at Come and Hear™) deals with the laws of betrothal. The Soncino translator, Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, states of Chapter II:
It treats … the simultaneous betrothal of more than one woman.
— Rabbi Dr. Freedman (19)
Clearly polygamy is not confined to levirate marriages.
Jewish Encyclopedia on History of Polygamy
In 1906, the Jewish Encyclopedia published a history of polygamy among the Hebrews and Jews. (4) After defining polygamy, the article states:
While there is no evidence of a polyandrous state in primitive Jewish society, polygamy seems to have been a well-established institution, dating from the most ancient times and extending to modern days. The Law indeed regulated and limited this usage; and the prophets and the scribes looked upon it with disfavor. Still all had to recognize its existence, and not until late was it completely abolished. At no time, however, was it practiced so much among the Israelites as among other nations; and the tendency in Jewish social life was always toward MONOGAMY.
— Jewish Encyclopedia (4)
We have included some excerpts from that article describing the early days of Hebrew/Jewish polygamy in the Appendix A: The Jewish Encyclopedia on Polygamy. Notice the writers' apologetic tone. The text may still be available at the Jewish Encyclopedia website. (4)
Jewish Polygamy Is Banned in Middle Ages
In the following Jewish Encyclopedia excerpts, many of the citations in the original text have been omitted for easy readability.
In the Middle Ages, Rabbi Gershom b. Judah (960-1028) convened a synod and urged Jews to give up polygamy …
— Jewish Encyclopedia (6)
An express prohibition against polygamy was pronounced by R. Gershom b. Judah, "the Light of the Exile" (960-1028), which was soon accepted in all the communities of northern France and of Germany. The Jews of Spain and of Italy as well as those of the Orient continued to practise polygamy for a long period after that time, although the influence of the prohibition was felt even in those countries. Some authorities suggested that R. Gershom's decree was to be enforced for a time only, namely, up to … 1240 C.E. … probably believing that the Messiah would appear before that time; but this opinion was overruled by that of the majority of medieval Jewish rabbis. Even in the Orient monogamy soon became the rule and polygamy the exception; for only the wealthy could afford the luxury of many wives …
— Jewish Encyclopedia (4)
Ban Due to Christian Opinion
The Jewish Encyclopedia gives the impression — but does not actually state — that polygamy was banned by Gershom b. Judah because Jews disapproved of the practice. However, another explanation has been offered. The Salt Lake Tribune, in an article entitled "Polygamy's Practice Stirs Debate in Israel," reports of polygamy:
But the practice has been banned for Jews in Europe since the 11th century, when rabbinate leaders sought to ease tensions between Jews and their Christian neighbors, who considered polygamy barbaric.
— Salt Lake Tribune (8)
A contemporary Jewish proponent of polygamy, Emes L'Yaakov, author of The Orthodox Jewish Pro Polygamy Page, states that polygamy was practiced by Europeans but was eventually banned. He says that this is the source of European resentment against Jewish polygamy.
Since the Christians were now banned from something that had been normal practice for many years, they resented the fact that the Jews could continue to have more than one wife. When goyim resent Jews, Jews get killed. Therefore to prevent massacres of the Jews, Rabbeinu Gershom banned polygamy.
— Emes L'Yaakov (3)
Jewish American Polygamy Circa 1906
Let's return to the Jewish Encyclopedia.
In spite of the prohibition against polygamy and of the general acceptance thereof, the Jewish law still retains many provisions which apply only to a state which permits polygamy. The marriage of a married man is legally valid and needs the formality of a bill of divorce for its dissolution, while the marriage of a married woman is void and has no binding force …
— Jewish Encyclopedia (4)
The article is authored by the Executive Committee of The Jewish Encyclopedia, and Julius H. Greenstone, a Philadelphia, Pa. rabbi.
In summary of the above, then, the Jewish Encyclopedia (published 1906) states:
Use First Wife for Babies, Second as Prostitute
Why might a man seek more than one wife? This question still holds interest. Rabbi Fine, of the Jewish Chronicle's "Ask The Rabbi" page, suggests an answer:
The first recorded polygamy is that of Lemekh (Genesis 4:19). Why did he do it? A midrash suggests he wanted one wife for procreation and another for sex; the first wife would bear children and then become a living widow because her husband would ignore her, and the second wife would sterilize herself and dress up like a prostitute (Genesis Rabbah 33:2).
— Rabbi Fine for The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (10)
The Salt Lake City Tribune reports on polygamy in modern day Israel:
Polygamy may be banned by the state constitution and abolished by the predominant religion, but it is still practiced by ultra-orthodox followers of the faith, some who want it made lawful to avoid sticky legal and moral questions.
— Salt Lake Tribune (8)
Two Orthodox Jews Speak on Polygamy
Now let us return to Emes L'Yaakov's Orthodox Jewish Pro Polygamy Page. He gives us insight into a contemporary Orthodox Jew's view of polygamy:
Christian commentators with a perverted perspective following in the Roman Catholic tradition have tremendous difficulty with Yaakov [Jacob] having four wives. This very point shows to what extent the Roman church is not a continuation of Jewish traditions, society and morality, but rather the continuation of Greek and Roman pagan traditions, society and morality …
— Emes L'Yaakov (3)
It seems that Emes L'Yaakov is not trying to impress the Christian Right, and thus speaks his mind freely. Let us contrast this with the statements made by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of America's Real War. We have met Rabbi Lapin before, in America's New Government Church and Sex with Children by Talmud Rules; he presents himself as a an ally of the Christian Right, and he is a favorite speaker of organizations such as Concerned Women for America. In America's Real War, Rabbi Lapin argues against pluralism in America:
We may all believe as we wish; however, translating our beliefs into the actions sometimes demanded by those beliefs may conflict with Judeo-Christian belief. When they do, it is the actions informed by Christian belief that will prevail.
— Rabbi Lapin (15)
Rabbi Lapin gives, as an example, the struggle of the Mormon state, Utah, to overcome objections to polygamy and gain entry into the Union in the late 1800s. While giving his readers the impression that he, as a rabbi, disapproves of polygamy and shares Christian disgust with it, he fails to mention Jewish polygamy laws and practices to his Christian readers.
It would be only natural and understandable if two powerful organizations with fundamental doctrinal interests in making polygamy legal in the US would join hands. Expect behind-the-scenes Mormon-Jewish cooperation in changing polygamy laws and the attitudes of Americans toward polygamy. The alliance may be particularly effective in light of America's Talmudization.
Indeed, the paths of two stars in the Orthodox and Mormon communities have already crossed. The two stars are Dr. Laura Schlessinger, an Orthodox Jew and a member of a Chabad Lubavitch synagogue, and the former Mormon Congressional representative Matt Salmon (R-Arizona). When a psychology study allegedly promoting pederasty was published, Schlessinger condemned it on the airwaves, and Rep. Salmon condemned it in the House. When Salmon's resolution condemning the study passed unanimously on July 12, 1999, Dr. Laura told her listeners she had in Rep. Salmon a "major new hero." (5)
How close is Mormon-Jewish cooperation? The Jewish Week of June 6, 2003 reports that 300 Mormons — headed by a Mormon who traveled from Utah — cleaned up a neglected Jewish graveyard in Queens, NY. (23)
Expect New Voices
Now comes another voice to the polygamy debate, this one named TruthBearer.org. The founder of this group is not a Jew, but a self-proclaimed conservative Christian. This conservative Christian, though, does not want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and the Christian saints — he wants to follow in the footsteps of Jacob, David, and Solomon. He wants to have lots of wives. If one can tell religion by surname, this is an odd one for a Christian — the founder of TruthBearer.org is named Mark Henkel. (16)
We can expect the Christian polygamists to demand social and legal changes.
Let us think about this carefully. Gentile laws make polygamy illegal in the United States, but Talmud law makes it permissible. Talmud law allows a man to divorce his wife at any time, for any reason (see And So a Talmud Marriage Ends). He may have to pay her a settlement, but in fact there are ways he can avoid making any payment. Jewish sexual law will bring about many changes in our society. Before we jump, we should look and ask: Is this the direction we want to go?
Thank you for your consideration of the above,
NEXT: New America 5: Really, Really Kosher Sex
Appendix A: The Jewish Encyclopedia on Polygamy
The Jewish Encyclopedia's article on polygamy (4) appears in Volume X, which bears a publication date of 1906. While assuming a critical attitude to the practice, the Encyclopedia eventually concedes it is sanctioned by Jewish law, and then infers polygamy is still being practiced in the US. In the following excerpts, many of the citations in the original text have been omitted for easy readability. This text may still be available at the Jewish Encyclopedia website.
That the ideal state of human society, in the mind of the primitive Israelite, was a monogamous one is clearly evinced by the fact that the first man (Adam) was given only one wife … Abraham had only one wife; and he was persuaded to marry his slave Hagar only at the urgent request of his wife, who deemed herself barren … Jacob married two sisters, because he was deceived by his father-in-law, Laban. He, too, married his wives' slaves at the request of his wives … among the Judges, however, polygamy was practised, as it was also among the rich and the nobility … Elkanah, the father of Samuel, had two wives, probably because the first (Hannah) was childless. The tribe of Issachar was noted for its practise of polygamy. Caleb had two concubines … David and Solomon had many wives, a custom which was probably followed by al the later kings of Judah and of Israel … Jehoiada gave to Joash two wives only …
— Jewish Encyclopedia (4)
Appendix B: Polygamy and the Slave Hagar
In these Biblical passages are shown two incidents from the life of Abraham (known earlier as Abram) and his women. These incidents are reasonably predictable from the Jewish laws on marriage, polygamy, and slavery.
In the first passage, Abraham and his wife Sarai decide that Sarai's slave Hagar, should bear a child for Abraham. Hagar 's consent is not considered and not mentioned. After Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai and Hagar become polygamy rivals (zarah), and Sarai treats her cruelly. In desperation, Hagar escapes into the wilderness. She is saved from death by an angel.
America under the Talmud