Saturday 28 March 2009

Jewish Harems in Talmud Law

ZARAH — A co-wife, a married woman in relation to the other wives of her husband.

Soncino Talmud Glossary

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.

Monogamy in Israel was thus not the result of European contact. As a matter of fact, monogamy was firmly established in Jewish life long before the rise of Christianity …

— 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: More

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