The story of Jewish polygamy.

Author:Goldfeder, Mark
Position:V. The Amoraic Period through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 268-315
  1. The Amoraic Period

    The composition of the Mishna by Rabbi Judah HaNasi in the beginning of the third century, and its dissemination and acceptance in the Jewish legal academies both in Israel and elsewhere, led to a clear break in the way scholars worked to pass on the tradition. (170) The generations that followed the Tannaim were called Amoraim ("those who recount the law") because they worked to interpret and deliver the authoritative Mishnayot. Memorization and constant recitation were the cultural ideal. (171) Polygamy continued to be legal according to Jewish law during this period, which lasted until the codification of the Babylonian Talmud around 500 C.E. From what we know, however, it continued to be rare in practice, probably even more so than before. (172) Talmudic debate and legislation regarding multiple wives is frequent, but seems to have been mostly academic. (173) While the two Talmuds contain a great deal of biographical information about many sages over the centuries, there is not a single undisputed reference to any of the Amoraim actually having more than one wife.

    While Jews had been living outside of Israel in Babylonia since the Destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the traditions until this point had been quite fluid and connected, with Israel as the accepted source of authority. In the Amoraic period, as demonstrated by the emergence of the two Talmuds, two distinct communities began to take shape. While the Amoraic period is said to have lasted until 500 C.E., in truth the Amoraim in the land of Israel were only active until approximately 370 C.E. The earlier close of the Jerusalem Talmud was probably due to the political reality in Israel: in 351 the Roman commander Ursicinus wreaked vengeance on the Jews of Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Lydda, the seats of the three academies, because of their revolts against the army. (174)

    There is much discussion in rabbinic literature about how to account for some of the differences between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Some assume that they represent the difference between two contemporary but different traditions, perhaps based on geographical and political influence. The Jews who remained in Israel during this period were under Roman rule, and were thus exposed to Roman views (and subject to Roman laws) about monogamy. The Jews in the Babylonian exile, however, were in close proximity to the polygamous Zoroastrian religious culture of Persia. Others, however, downplay these differences, noting that if you align the different Tannaitic and Amoraic layers of the two Talmuds, the corresponding strata are remarkably similar. They thus assume that what the two Talmuds really preserve is the difference between two stages of the development of a single shared tradition. (175) Regardless, though, of whether the differences were due to time and/or place, to some extent the material that we have preserved from the Jewish communities of Israel and Babylonia must be examined separately, with Israel coming first. (176)

    In 212 C.E., all Jews living in the Roman Empire became Roman citizens, and were therefore subject to severe penalties for the practice of polygamy. In 285 C.E. Diocletian specifically extended the prohibition against polygamy to all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, and in 324 C.E. Constantine the Great became ruler and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. (177)

    On December 30, 393, Emperor Theodosius (with Arcadius and Honorius) prohibited Jews from practicing polygyny, stating: "None of the Jews shall keep his custom (morem) in marriage unions, neither shall he contract nuptials according to his law, nor enter into several matrimonies at the same time." (178) The imperial legislation was apparently not entirely successful, however, even outside of Israel, because in 537 Justinian issued a novel ruling that granted an exemption from laws against polygyny to the Jews of Tyre; in 535 he had prohibited 'abominable marriages,' and two years later, upon tearful supplication from the Jews, he somewhat relaxed his position. (179)

    While some scholars, such as Lowy, (180) contend that Roman legislation (such as the aforementioned laws) did not serve as a deterrent for Jewish polygamy, (181) most assume that it played a fairly large role. As Salo Baron puts it, "[n]o matter how little Jews were inclined to obey Roman legislation when it differed from their own, public violation of imperial criminal law throughout a lifetime, open to denunciation from any quarter, necessarily became unusual." (182)

    Others point out that the law bears on all those marriage customs that were peculiar to Jewish law, such as the degrees of permitted kinship, and legal age for marriage, in addition to any mention of polygamy. In fact, its formulation even permitted a more general interpretation; one could read it as condemning even the Jewish marriage ceremony itself. (183) They observe that clearly Imperial authorities never effectively implemented the law, because it was precisely this halakhic corpus that remained a constant throughout Jewish history. In fact, we have a textual witness to the already monogamous character of the Jewish family in the first half of the fifth century on the one hand, and to the enforcement (or lack thereof) of the Imperial legislation against polygamy on the other. In Theodoret's Commentary to Paul's First Epistle to Timotheus, we find the following: "Formerly, both Greeks and Jews used to contract simultaneously marriages with two, three, or even more wives. Even now some copulate with concubines and prostitutes, although the Imperial laws forbid to marry two women at the same time." (184)

    1. The Jerusalem Tradition

      Discussing the various cases of the Mishna, the Jerusalem Talmud contains some legal rules about polygamy, (185) but the most important traditions about polygamy in the land of Israel during this time were actually preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. During the Amoraic period there was constant contact as well as correspondence between the centers of Jewish learning in Israel and in Babylonia, and so both Talmuds contain views from Amoraim who lived far away. In fact, for the most part the two rabbinic centers are not portrayed as being equal in authority or in prestige; in general, the Babylonian scholars considered themselves subordinate to the Israeli sages, who had a more direct connection to the tradition. Thus we find the fourth generation Babylonian Amoraic Sage Abaye, in Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 51a, remarking: "since we are subordinate to them, we do as they do." (186) Therefore, it is not surprising that the Israeli traditions are quoted frequently and respectfully.

      Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65a quotes Rav Ammi, an Amora from Israel who was active from 290-320 C.E. He holds that if a husband whose wife has not borne him children wants to take another wife:

      He must in this case pay her [his present wife] the amount of her ketubah. For I hold that whoever marries a wife in addition to his [present] wife must pay [the present wife] the amount of her ketubah (the price stipulated in the marriage agreement for the husband to pay in the event of the termination of their marriage, either by his death or by their divorce). (187) Falk maintains that Rav Ammi's ruling "expresses a fundamental change of outlook ... a new precept, based on his own personal conclusions ... [his ruling] for the first time, reflects a belief in monogamy on principle, as expressed by a rabbinical teacher, without any support from the law or from tradition." (188)

      Falk claims that this ruling must have been "inspired by beliefs and customs common in the Roman world of that time, which were also propagated by the provincial administration." (189) He notes that the Mishna had already laid down a number of cases in which the court obliged the husband to grant his wife a divorce and pay her ketubah. The common denominator in those cases is that relations between the couple have become strained, "either because the husband treats his wife in an oppressive manner, or as the result of a grave infirmity on his part." (190) Falk therefore deduces that, for Rav Ammi at least, and probably reflecting the beliefs and customs common in the Roman world, bigamy was an injustice. Rav Ammi's statement is expressed without any support from a law or tradition; it is simply a sentiment. (191) It is particularly poignant when contrasted with the very next line in the Talmud, a quote from the Babylonian Amora Rava:192 "Rava said: A man may marry wives in addition to his first wife, provided only that he possess the means to maintain them." (193)

      Outside of a legal context, the Babylonian Talmud records that both Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi (both of whom were sages who lived in Israel and were active between 290 320 C.E.) were sitting before Rabbi Isaac, who told them a parable about a man who had two wives, one young and one old: "The young one used to pluck out his white hair, and the old one used to pluck out his black hair. Finally, he was bald on both sides." (194)

      Again, despite the fact that polygamy was still discussed and approved of at least in legislative contexts in Israel during the Amoraic period, comments like these reflect a progressively more negative attitude toward polygamy and a moral leaning towards monogamy on the part of the Talmudic rabbis. (195) In the Babylonian Talmud's Avot D'Rabbi Nathan (one of the minor tractates), Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, an Amora from Israel, also comments negatively on polygamy:

      Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says, "Job thought to himself, for what would be my portion from God above, and my heritage from the Almighty on high? (196) If Adam was intended to have ten wives, they would have been given to him. But he was intended to marry only one wife. So too my wife is enough for me. My portion is enough." (197) And in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah, redacted in Israel, (198) the...

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