Jewish Law

What’s The Truth About . . . The “Expiration Date” Of Rabbeinu Gershom’s Ban On Polygamy?

Misconception: The famous cherem (ban) of Rabbeinu Gershom1 Me’or Hagolah, enacted in the early eleventh century, prohibiting polygamy2 was limited to 1,000 years, a date that is now approaching and at which time polygamy will again be permitted.

Fact: There are various opinions about the expiration date of the cherem, many maintaining that it was the end of the fifth millennium in the Jewish calendar (1240 ce), but all agree that whether or not the ban was meant to be permanent, polygamy remains generally prohibited and the situation has not and will not revert to the pre-cherem situation.

Background: Biblically, polygamy is permitted. The Torah states, “when a man has two wives” (Devarim 21:15), and bars the king from taking “too many” wives (Devarim 17:17), indicating that a few are allowed. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) derives from these pesukim that the prohibition of having too many wives applies only to a king—anyone else is not Biblically limited.

The first instance of polygamy is early in the Torah, when Lamech takes two wives (Bereishit 4:19), and Chazal see negative motives in that act (see Rashi). Many Biblical figures, among them Avraham, Yaakov, Elkanah and King David, had multiple wives.3

In the Talmudic period there was no ban on multiple wives, but efforts were made to encourage monogamy and to protect the rights of all wives.4 For example, the Talmud says (Yevamot 44a) that the city elders were to provide “free advice” to a man faced with a potential yibum (Levirate marriage) situation: a young man should not marry an old woman, nor an old man a young woman, and in all cases a man should not marry more women than he can financially support and for whom he can fulfill all his husbandly obligations, assumed to be no more than four.

Rava (Yevamot 65a) permits as many wives as a man can support, and this is how the Tur (EH 1) rules. Rav advised (Pesachim 113a) against marrying two wives, as they might conspire against him. Regarding an infertile couple (Yevamot 65a), Rabbi Ami says that if the husband marries a second wife, he must divorce the first and pay her the full amount outlined in the ketubah.

Rabbi Reuven Margoliot (d. 1971; Olelot 5-6, 1947) demonstrates that Chazal were against polygamy, barring exceptional circumstances, and that in practice it was uncommon in the Talmudic period.5 He shows that the legend that Bar Kapparah married twelve wives who had agreed to jointly support him in his studies is based on a misreading of the story in the Yerushalmi (Yevamot 4:12 together with Bavli, Yevamot 109b) in which he did yibum with the wives of his twelve brothers. Rabbi Margoliot points out that Chazal looked for a justification to explain Elkanah having two wives, and they explained the Ruth story such that Ploni Almoni and Boaz did not want multiple wives. The famous mishnah at the end of Ta’anit (4:8) about dancing in the vineyard is explained (Ta’anit 31a) as referring to unmarried men looking for a wife. And Rabbi Margoliot shows that even Rava, who permits polygamy in principle, was averse to taking a second wife himself (see Yevamot 34b, Tosafot s.v. datai). He asserts that in the thousands of incidents and stories in rabbinic literature, there is only one, involving the overseer of King Agrippas’s estate (Sukkah 27a), in which there is an incidence of polygamy.6 The Aruch Hashulchan also states (EH 1:32) that among all of the Tannaim, Amoraim and Geonim, none had more than one wife.

During the Geonic period, and later in locales without a ban on polygamy, families that sought to protect their daughters inserted a clause in the ketubah (see Shulchan Aruch, EH 76:8) prohibiting the husband from taking an additional wife.7 Such a clause was found in the Cairo Geniza.”8

Rabbeinu Gershom ben Yehudah was born ca. 960 ce (4720) in either France or Germany; he later settled in Mainz and disseminated Torah from his yeshivah to the nascent Ashkenazic community. He died in 1028 (4788),9 leaving behind many students, among them Rabbi Yaakov ben Yakkar and Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi, the teachers of Rashi, who disseminated Rabbeinu Gershom’s Torah and reputation throughout Ashkenaz. This helped spread his many decrees, which might have originally been intended solely for the Mainz community, throughout Ashkenaz.

Among his enactments are the interconnected ban on more than one simultaneous wife and the invalidation of a divorce given without the woman’s consent (Rema, EH 115:4, 119:6).10 As many authorities point out, a ban on a man divorcing his wife against her will would have little meaning absent the ban on polygamy.11 This was meant to create a situation where neither spouse could walk out of a marriage at will.

Various reasons have been suggested for the ban on polygamy.12 The Mordechai (cited in Darkei Moshe, EH 1:12), Gra (EH 1:34) and Aruch Hashulchan (EH 1:23) say it is to prevent quarrelling, viewed as an inevitable consequence of multiple wives. Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Sho’el U’meishiv, kamma 1:178) explains that it was to prevent unethical men from taking a second wife and then mistreating the first by leaving her “abandoned within marriage.” Rabbi Yaakov Meir Pado (Shu”t Maharim 16) suggests it is because a man may not be able to support multiple wives, and this violates the Talmudic principle (Yevamot 65a) of not having more wives than one can afford.13 A close disciple of his, Rabbi Binyamin David Levin (ca. 1825–1906; Shemen Sasson, 34) offers another reason he heard from his teacher Rabbi Pado. The Gemara (Bava Batra 60b) records that in response to the anti-Torah decrees of the Romans, the rabbis contemplated banning marriages (possibly stated as an exaggeration), but decided to permit the people to continue marrying. But, says this theory, one wife is sufficient, and thus in light of the ongoing persecutions of the exile, Rabbeinu Gershom barred additional wives. Rabbi Levin also quotes Rabbi Yaakov Emden, who suggests that Jews who lived in Christian lands would be in danger if they had more than one wife, as this was anathema to Christianity. The Gra (EH 1:34) also suggests that it is an extension of the Talmud’s admonition (Yevamot 37b) that one may not marry one woman in one region and another in another region, lest the children of the two marriages unknowingly marry. Rabbi Yaakov Bruchin of Karlin (d. 1844; Mishkenot Yaakov, EH 1) elaborates on why this Talmudic concern had not previously yielded such a prohibition. He explains that due to the exile, Jews now wander from place to place and it can easily happen that a man will marry a woman in one place, move on to another locale, not heed the concern and marry another wife. Rabbeinu Gershom therefore totally banned a second wife.14

The ban spread and was quickly accepted in Germany and France, but not in other locations. Rambam (d. 1204; Hilchot Ishut 14:3) wrote that multiple wives are permitted as long as one can fulfill all his obligations to all of them. The Beit Yosef (EH 1) quotes the Rashba (d. 1310, Barcelona) as saying that the ban was not accepted in his region and also not in Provence, bordering on France. It was so not accepted, the Rashba reports, that many people, including scholars and prominent people, married multiple wives with no concern. The Ritva (d. 1320; Yevamot 44a), writing in Christian Spain, explained that the Rambam might have only been permitting it in Muslim lands, where Jews permitted polygamy.15

Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch, EH 1:9-11), in early sixteenth-century Muslim-ruled lands, wrote that polygamy is permitted; however, he notes that in places where the Jewish custom is not to permit more than one wife, it is banned. He mentions Rabbeinu Gershom’s enactment, notes that it was not accepted in all lands, and suggests that making such bans is actually a good idea. And, basing himself on the Rashba, he says that the ban was only until the end of the millennium in which it was enacted, the fifth millennium (counting from Creation), i.e., 1240 ce. In other words, it was not a 1,000-year ban, but a ban until the end of the “thousand” in which it was promulgated. The Rema immediately comments that even according to those who say that the ban has expired, in any place where it had been accepted, polygamy remains forbidden, for even if the ban expired, Ashkenazic Jewry had accepted the prohibition as a custom. Rabbi Solomon Luria (d. 1573; Shu”t Maharshal 14), in the course of discussing a wild case involving a forged claim that a get was accepted by the woman, counters that the Rashba’s statement is baseless and should be outright rejected, and that the ban, like all bans, is for perpetuity unless revoked, which it wasn’t.

In his responsa, Rabbi Karo (d. 1575; Shu”t Beit Yosef, Dinei Ketubot:14) is emphatic that the decree ended in 1240, yet Ashkenazim have maintained the practice and most people have no idea that it ended. Therefore, he says, an Ashkenazi who is aware that it ended and is in a non-Ashkenazi land is not bound by it. He cites an example where an Ashkenazi man in Yerushalayim, with a wife and children, married another wife, and relates that in Salonika, Constantinople and Adrianople no one ever questioned an Ashkenazi who married another wife.

In the context of discussing the request of an Ashkenazi man living in Salonika to marry a second wife, Rabbi Samuel de Medina (d. 1589; Shu”t Maharshdam, EH 120) quotes a Rabbi Yechiel Ashkenazi as asserting that the cherem was instituted until the coming of Mashiach.

The Pitchei Teshuvah (EH 1:19) observes that in general, rabbinic decrees are not time-limited. He then notes that many great leaders who lived at the beginning of the sixth millennium were silent about an expiration and many maintain that it is a permanent ban.

The Aruch Hashulchan (d. 1908; EH 1:23) says that it is irrelevant if it originally had a terminal date; it has been accepted by most Jews and is still in force. Furthermore, unless it is known otherwise, the assumption in all locales is that it applies. He stresses that even in America and Australia, it is in effect. And, unlike the Sephardic posekim, he says that an Ashkenazi who moves to a Sephardi land is still bound by the ban. Despite his strict approach to the ban, he says that if a man makes aliyah and his wife refuses to join him, owing to the importance of living in Israel, he can send a get to her, wait the time it takes to arrive, and then marry another wife in Israel because it is obvious (to him) that a ban would not have been instituted in such a case.

Discussions of the cherem include possible exceptions, such as: yibum, a barren couple (childless for ten years), a wife who became insane or converted to Christianity,16 and a wife who gave permission for the husband to marry an additional wife. The Rema (Darkei Moshe, EH 1:10) cites a variety of opinions on all of these situations. And then there are unusual, often tragic, cases. Rabbi Gershon Ashkenazi (d. 1693; Avodat HaGershuni, 36) describes the case of a Ukrainian refugee, a beloved student of his, whose wife was captured by the Tatars during the 1648 massacres and converted under duress. The student now wanted to marry another woman. He records that Rabbi David HaLevi, the Taz, permitted it unconditionally, although he then decided that a divorce for the first wife should be written and deposited with an intermediary. Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini (d. 1904; Sdei Chemed, vol. 4, ma’arechet ishut: 24), while serving as rabbi in Crimea, was asked about a man whose wife was found guilty of counterfeiting and was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia followed by permanent exile to Siberia. After monumental, unsuccessful attempts to free her, the husband felt he could not move there, and the wife refused a get. After a great deal of deliberation, the rabbis permitted him to deposit a get with the beit din and remarry.

Even in circumstances in which taking a second wife despite the ban may be permitted, it cannot be done easily and without serious consideration. The process, known as heter me’ah rabbanim, is described by the thirteenth-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (5774 ed., pp. 91, 577) and involves getting 100 people from three countries and three communities to approve the abrogation, and often, depositing a get for the first wife. It was designed to be an arduous process.17 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, 9:EH:5) emphasizes that the cherem is still in force even though we are in the sixth millennium, and he was emphatic (Iggerot Moshe, EH 4:3) that there can never be a takanah that would leave a woman an agunah, and thus a heter me’ah rabbanim must include the husband depositing a get with a beit din. The husband cannot demand money from the first wife even if he is legitimately owed, and, Rav Moshe says, if there is no get there is no heter, even if 1,000 rabbis sign. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yabia Omer, 8:EH:3) says that although it was not always required that the husband deposit a get, that is the rule nowadays.

Over the years there were a few authorities who were not pleased with the cherem. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (d. 1776; Shu”t Yaavetz 2:15; pp. 51-2 in 2015 ed.) theorized that the cherem had Christian roots; he thought the Torah permitted polygamy for valid reasons, and saw taking a concubine (pilegesh)18 as a means to circumvent the cherem and increase the Jewish population, something he viewed as important. Rabbi Akiva Yosef Schlesinger (d. 1922) has a long discussion about the cherem in his Beit Yosef Chadash. In the introduction,19 there is a letter from 1876 from Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Heller of Tzfat (d. 1884) in which he attests to having heard multiple times from Rabbi Yisroel Ashkenazi of Shklov (d. 1839) that he personally heard from the Gra that if he could, he would take off time from his study and prayer and wander from city to city to abolish the cherem of Rabbeinu Gershom, and that this would hasten the redemption.

Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Teshuvot Ibra [Kitvei HaGri Henkin, vol. 2] 71) wrote that today anyone who wants a second wife is doing it for the wrong reasons, the prohibition has the strength of a Biblical prohibition, and the State of Israel should legislate harsh punishments to deter violators. Polygamy is outlawed in Israel; the law was updated in 1977, punishable by up to five years in prison.20 In Israel, a Jewish man may receive permission to marry a second wife if a rabbinic tribunal approves of it and one of the two chief rabbis signs on it.21

The Meiri (d. 1315) says that while polygamy is permitted, monogamy is the ideal and that the Talmud hinted at this with the story of Rebbi’s son (Ketubot 62b). Avot D’Rabi Natan (B:2) portrays Iyov contemplating how many wives is ideal and noting that G-d could have given Adam as many wives as He wanted, but chose to give him one, a testament to monogamy being the normative. And when marriage is used as the metaphor for the relationship between G-d and Israel, as in the Book of Hosea, it is clear that a typical, ideal marriage is a monogamous one. 


1. Commonly spelled Gershom (“mem”), it is sometimes spelled Gershon (“nun”), e.g., Aruch Hashulchan, EH 1:23; Chida (Shem Hagedolim, 5752 ed.) pp. 55, 105, 169 (although in other places he uses a “mem”); and Yabia Omer 3: EH:18.

2. Polygamy is actually a marriage in which either spouse has more than one mate. The more accurate words are polygyny for a man having multiple wives and polyandry for a woman having multiple husbands (which will not be discussed herein, as it is Biblically prohibited). Nonetheless, the less precise, more common term “polygamy” will be used in this article.

3. Note that these were not all planned. Avraham took a second wife only after Sarah, through a Divine spirit, encouraged it (Rashi, Bereishit 16:2), and Yaakov had four wives as a result of Lavan’s trickery and his first wives giving him their maidservants (Bereishit 30:4, 9). Notably, Yitzchak had only one wife despite experiencing childlessness for twenty years.

4. This has a Biblical source. The Torah orders that if one takes a second wife, the rights of the first wife must be ensured (Shemot 21:10).

5. The academic world reached similar conclusions. See S. Lowy, “The Extent of Jewish Polygamy in Talmudic Times,” Journal of Jewish Studies 9 (1958): 115–138; and R. Katzoff, “Polygamy in ‘P. Yadin’?” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 109 (1990): 128–132. Strangely, Yaakov Elman wrote (“Babylonian Echoes in a Late Rabbinic Legend,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society [1972]: 4[1], n. 11): “Conditions in Babylon, however, were different [than in Palestine], and there is ample evidence that polygamy continued to be practised there.” Tiferet Yisrael (Yachin, Yevamot 2:10:60) sees a proof in a mishnah that polygamy was uncommon in the Mishnaic period.

6. Regarding the gemara (Yoma 18b; Yevamot 37b) in which Rav and Rav Nachman seem to request a second, temporary wife, he rejects all previous explanations and gives a creative, non-polygamous explanation (Pninim u’Margoliot [Jerusalem, 2006], pp. 130–4). The story of Rabbi Tarphon, a kohen, marrying 300 women during a famine to permit them to eat terumah was a utilitarian arrangement in a time of dire necessity (Yerushalmi, Yevamot 4:12). The parable (Bava Kama 60b) of the man with two wives who went bald because his young wife plucked out his white hairs and his old wife pulled out his black hairs has parallels in other cultures. See Lorena Miralles Maciá, “The Fable of the Middle-Aged Man with Two Wives: From the Aesopian Motif to the Babylonian Talmud Version in b. B. Qam. 60b,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 39, no. 2 (2008): 267–81.

7. The Rambam (Shu”t 373) was asked about someone who had such a ketubah and then his brother died childless. Rambam ruled that in such a case he may do yibum despite the wife’s objections.

8. See Louis Epstein, “The Jewish Marriage Contract,” JTS (1927): 272.

9. The notion that he passed away the year of Rashi’s birth, 1040, is widely known (and is even quoted in Shu”t Maharshal 29), but appears to be false based on manuscripts and statements of Rabbeinu Tam (Avraham Grossman, Chachmei Ashkenaz Harishonim [Jerusalem, 2001], pp. 109–11).

10. For a discussion of his other famous ban, that on reading other people’s mail, see Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society LV (spring 2008): 99–127. For a list of his enactments, see the very end of Be’er Hagolah, YD 334.

11. The ban against forcible divorce by the man, usually viewed as the stricter of the two (see Shu”t Chatam Sofer, EH:167), was universally accepted and was for perpetuity. Cf. Beit Shmuel 115:7; Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, Shu”t Sho’el U’meishiv, mahadurah kamma 1:113.

12. The reason based on Rabbeinu Gershom’s personal life experience, found in Marcus Lehman’s book Rabbeinu Gershom Meor Hagolah, seems to be without historical basis.

13. The seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe (sichah 3 Iyar 5747, Tazria-Metzora) suggests that the harsher nature of the Ashkenazic galut over the Sephardic, including in earning a living, explains why the ban on polygamy was accepted by the former and not the latter.

14. Given that polygamy was rare in early eleventh-century Germany, scholars have also wrestled with the question of what motivated Rabbeinu Gershom to ban polygamy. Professor Avraham Grossman (The Historical Background to the Ordinances on Family Affairs Attributed to Rabbenu Gershom Me’or Ha-Golah in A. Rapoport-Albert and S.J. Zipperstein, eds, Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky [London, 1988], pp. 3–24) shows that German-Jewish women were of high social standing and the decree was to protect them from being abandoned by husbands who would travel on business for long periods of time and great distances to Arab lands, where some would marry a second wife. He quotes a series of related ordinances from Rabbeinu Tam, such as forbidding absences of longer than eighteen months, a mandatory period of six months between trips, et cetera. Similarly, the Rambam enacted a decree that a non-native could not marry an Egyptian-Jewish woman until he proves or swears on a Chumash that he is single. And when an outsider did marry a local, he could not leave on a business trip unless he left a conditional get contingent upon his failure to return after a specified time period.

15. Among Yemenite Jews, polygamy remained accepted and common well into the twentieth century. Ethiopian Jews permitted polygamy but it was not common (Sharon Shalom, From Sinai to Ethiopia [Hebrew edition], p. 235).

16. See Yabia Omer 7:EH:4.

17. See Rabbi Gedaliah Schwartz, “Heter Me’ah Rabbanim,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society XI (spring 1986): 33–49.

18. The main subject of this lengthy responsum.

19. I found this in the 2005 reprint, but have been unable to locate it in the original 1876 edition although Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in a 1980 teshuvah (Yabia Omer 8:EH:2) quotes it from there as part of his “minimizing” the cherem.

20. Despite this, the government turns a blind eye to the rampant polygamy among the Negev Bedouin, where supposedly approximately 30 percent of the population is in a polygamous relationship, are registered as such and even receive government benefits.

21. See Amihai Radzyner, “Halakha, Law, and Worldview: Chief Rabbis Goren and Yosef, and the Permission to Marry a Second Wife in Israeli Law,” Dine Israel 32 (2018): 261–304.


Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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