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The Moral of the Story is Avoid Polygamy!

By: Rav Uri Cohen

Anyone who thinks polygamy is a good idea should read more Archie comics.

– Binyamin Weinreich <1>

Parashat Ki Tetze starts with three scenarios: the yefat toar (captive woman), the firstborn son of a less-loved wife,<2> and the ben sorer umoreh (rebellious son). Besides all of them relating to family life, is there a connection between them? Rashi famously presents such a connection. On the phrase “You may take [the yefat toar] for yourself as a wife,” he comments:

[Not that you are commanded to take this woman as a wife] but Scripture [in permitting this marriage] is speaking only against the evil inclination [which drives him to desire her]. For if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. [The Torah teaches us, however, that] if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives – one beloved and the other despised]” (verse 15). [Moreover] he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these passages are juxtaposed (Midrash Tanchuma 1).<3>

In other words, the Torah reluctantly permits marrying a yefat toar but warns that there will be consequences, namely having a son who turns into a ben sorer umoreh. Why would that follow? Because the marriage with the yefat toar is doomed to fail. (Imagine an Israeli soldier coming home from war in Gaza or Lebanon with a new wife, an Arab woman he took prisoner. What could go wrong?) The result is that she is the less-loved of the two wives in the household. (Either the soldier subsequently marries a Jewish woman who is more acceptable to his family and community, or he was already married to his first wife before he went off to war and fell in love with the other woman.) The yefat toar’s son grows up knowing the painful truth that his mother feels unloved. Nobody is surprised if he gets into trouble. This is the connection as presented by Rashi.<4>

Interestingly, the midrash that is Rashi’s source adds the factor of polygamy (multiple marriage). Here’s the formulation in the Tanchuma:

As the rabbis taught [in Pirkei Avot 4:2], one mitzvah leads to another, and one aveirah (sin) leads to another. . . . What does it say after [the man marries the yefat toar]? “If a man has two wives” (Devarim 21:15). If two wives are in a home, there is fighting in the home. Furthermore, one will be beloved and the other will be despised [by the husband], or both wives will be despised. What does it say after that? “If a man has a wayward and rebellious son” (verse 18). Anyone who marries a yefat toar will end up fathering a ben sorer umoreh.<5>

According to this midrash, the reason that one wife is loved more than the other is not because the other is a foreign woman (forced into the whole situation), but rather because there are two wives at all. One sinful situation leads to another – taking an enemy woman captive will lead to marrying two wives, which will lead to having a rebellious son. What polygamy has in common with yefat toar is that in both cases, the Torah reluctantly grants permission for something that will probably end in tears.

You might be wondering: Since the Torah allowed polygamy here, wouldn’t that imply that it was okay? The short answer is: No, it allowed yefat toar as well, which is understood to be a concession to human weakness. But there’s more. Rav Yaakov Anatoli (1194-1256) has a fascinating discussion in his Malmad HaTalmidim. (The book’s title means prodding the students!)

He starts along the lines of the midrash. Right after the scenario of yefat toar, the Torah says: “If a man has two wives, one beloved and the other despised.” This is because a man who marries a yefat toar will end up despising her, and will compensate by marrying a second wife. Yet polygamy is not what the Torah wants. Rav Anatoli elaborates:

This is the point of the Torah’s story that one woman was created from the side of Adam to be a helper corresponding to him (Breisheet 2:18). It wasn’t two wives, because most of the time that’s just painful. This is why it says soon afterwards, “[A man leaves his parents] and sticks with his wife, and they become one” (verse 24). True, the Torah does not forbid polygamy. When something makes no sense, it's enough for the Torah to try to prevent it by telling a story. For example, the Torah does not forbid getting drunk, but hints [at how it’s a bad idea] through stories. In the same way, the Torah does not forbid polygamy. Who would even dare to do such a thing? If only (halvai) a marriage dealing with one woman and children would work out!

It was kings, with their vast wealth and power, whom the Torah felt the need to warn not to marry many wives (Devarim 17:17). But for ordinary men, there was no need for a warning. They would warn themselves off!

How about Avraham and Yaakov, who married more than one wife? The stories detail the specific reasons that compelled each of them to do so. Yitzchak was happy with one wife, the wise Rivkah [and had a married life that was much better than that of Avraham and Yaakov].<6>

In other words, the Torah doesn’t need to forbid marrying multiple wives, just as it doesn’t need to forbid getting drunk. In each case, just seeing the miserable experiences of others should lead people to avoid it. The Torah’s stories point in this direction as well. Rav Anatoli is reminding us that we’re supposed to learn lessons from the Torah in general – not just its commandments but also its stories. While it’s vital to follow halakhah, it isn’t the entire Torah. Sometimes stories – such as the unhappy marriages of Avraham, Yaakov, and the man in Ki Tetze who married two wives – are the best way to get the message across.<7>


1. Binyamin Weinreich, comment on Facebook status of Aqibha Y. Weisinger, December 14, 2011.

2. The word “s'nuah” is usually translated “hated” or “despised.” However, it can also mean “less loved.” Leah called herself “s'nuah” (Breisheet 29:31). Radak there comments that while she felt hated, the truth was that she was less loved; Yaakov did love Leah, just not as much as he loved Rachel.

3. Rashi on Devarim 21:11, translated by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg for Judaica Press.

4. This idea – that the ben sorer umoreh is the result of growing up with a mother who is the less-loved wife – appears in Midrash Eliyahu Zuta #3. However, when that midrash blames the husband/father, it is not for marrying a yefat toar specifically but rather for marrying anyone out of lust.

5. Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tetze #1. I based my translation on the Buber edition, but the text of the Warsaw edition is almost exactly the same.

6. Rav Yaakov Anatoli (1194-1256), Malmad HaTalmidim, Tazria, starting on p. 101a.

7. For the importance of stories to Judaism, see Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Telling the Story (Bo 5775),” 21 January 2015. Compare Professor C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” The New York Times, November 18, 1956.


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