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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: Cases of polygamy

T-S 8K13.11
T-S 8K13.11 (leaf 1, verso): concerning the marriage of a woman raped and taken captive
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 8 Jul 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issue 12 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in October 1986, by Mordechai A. Friedman:

The ban of Rabbenu Gershom ben Judah of Mainz (early eleventh century), which prohibited polygamy among the Ashkenazim, was never accepted by Jewish communities living under Islam. But how polygamous were these Jews during the so-called “classical” Genizah period of the High Middle Ages, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries?

The late Simcha Assaf, an eminent Genizah scholar, wrote that this society was completely monogamous and that not one case of polygamy had been found in the Genizah documents. There is no doubt that most families were, in fact, monogamous. Among the methods to prevent polygamy was a stipulation written into the marriage contract. The earliest known example appears in a recently discovered Geonic responsum, probably from the tenth century (Cambridge University Library, Or.1080 3.45v), and this became common in Fustat in the twelfth century.

Recent research by my lamented mentor, Professor S. D. Goitein, and myself has identified tens of cases of polygamy among the Genizah documents. I have collected more than seventy fragments, most of them from the Taylor-Schechter Collection, that are associated with monogamy or polygamy and the related problem of illicit relations with slave-girls.

These can be divided into ten separate categories. A brief description of these categories, with a relevant citation from one Taylor-Schechter fragment for each, well illustrates the situation:

1. Special undertakings not to marry a second wife begin to appear in Egypt in the late eleventh century. Several examples involve mixed marriages between Rabbanite and Karaite Jews.

T-S 13J6.33 concerns a match between a Karaite man and Rabbanite woman: “There will be no way for him to take a second wife or keep a slave-girl as a concubine. If he disregards this, he will be obligated to pay 100 dinars dedicated to the Rabbanite and Karaite poor.”

2. Before a woman agreed to let her husband marry a second wife, she would usually demand that he bind himself by an agreement that would protect her rights. At times both wives were promised equal treatment. In some documents, special guarantees were made for the security of the first wife.

T-S 16.214: “If she permits me to marry another woman, make the symbolic purchase (qinyan) with me that whenever she desires to separate, I will divorce her ... her delayed settlement will be in her hand as long as we are married ... Her mother is present and hears all this.”

3. Documents containing agreements with second wives show that women who entered a polygamous marriage were frequently of a lower social class or for some other reason had no choice but to accept the arrangement. The rough draft of a kethubbah of a woman raped and taken captive when the Mamluks conquered Akko from the Crusaders in 1291 is a good example.

T-S 8K13.11: “The groom’s first wife permitted him to marry any one of three women that he wants to take. This is the first, and he still has the right to marry two other women.”

4. Divorce did not always mark the end of all contracts between a man and woman. After a divorced man remarried, he and his divorcee sometimes were reconciled, so that he now had two wives.

In a kethubbah dated 1125/6 (T-S 8J32.1; two connecting fragments are in the Bodleian Collection in Oxford), Eleazar promises his bride Hasana (Beauty) not to remarry his divorcee. (He later did.)

5. The levirate, that is, the obligation to marry the widow of a brother who had died without children (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), resulted in polygamy when the surviving brother was already married. The widow did not always object to this.

T-S G1.64 (Query to a Gaon): “The dead man had three brothers. The oldest brother has a wife and child, and the widow wants him, not his brothers.”

6. The most common circumstance of polygamy, since antiquity, was when the first wife did not bear children or was otherwise incapacitated. Several examples of such marriages are preserved among the Genizah documents.

T-S 8.116: “I want to see a child before me ... so that my name and the name of my fathers be not cut off.”

7. Polygamous marriages did not always mean living together as one large family unit. Wives usually had separate apartments. Sometimes they lived in different cities.

T-S 13J2.25 (Fustat, 1139): “He has a wife in the city of Damascus ... The government - may God give it glory - will not engage him in the civil service until he has a local wife.”

8. Before marrying, one applied to the local Jewish communal leaders for a licence. The authorities did not permit one to take a second wife unless his first wife consented. Women who felt wronged by their husbands applied to the religious leaders for assistance. Among measures used to enforce rulings was the ban of excommunication.

T-S 13J26.6: “The man whom they banned in Fustat, Cairo and Dammuh arrived in Qus with his real wife and a small daughter, and he said ‘I divorced that other one whom I had taken, and they released me (from the ban).’”

9. The wives in a polygamous family often saw themselves as rivals. Sisterly affection and co-operation were the exception, enmity the rule.

Or.1080 J173 (a mother, visiting her daughter in the countryside, writes to her son): “Your sister is heavy (pregnant). I cannot bear her rival wife’s mistreating her.”

10. Slavery was common under Islam, and some Jewish women had slave-girls who did housework. Jewish law, unlike Islamic law, forbids sexual relations between a free man and a slave-girl. The example of their Muslim neighbours influenced some Jewish men to engage in illicit affairs with their slave-girls. Often they emancipated them and married them legally.

T-S K25.285 (responsum on marriage of former slave-girl in India): “If one says to a woman ‘You will be betrothed to me ... after you are emancipated’, she is betrothed.”

The complete texts of these documents will be edited in my forthcoming book Polygyny in Jewish Tradition and Practice - New Sources from the Cairo Geniza (Hebrew).

What happened next? Friedman’s book (ריבוי נשים בישראל – מקורות חדשים מגניזת קהיר) was published in 1986.

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