Ask the Rabbi

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

Q. Is there a Jewish view of polygamy?

A. A number of Biblical figures had more than one wife, but polygamy was never the Jewish ideal. When Eve was created as a wife for Adam, the Torah said, “Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (singular) and they shall be as one person” (Gen. 2:24). Sforno comments, “A man should seek to marry a woman (singular) harmoniously suited to him so that together they form a perfect whole”.

Generally any instance of polygamy is explained as a special case: Abraham marries a second wife because Sarah is thought to be barren; Jacob takes Rachel as his second wife because his father-in-law deceives him into marrying Leah.

By the time of the Prophets monogamy was the rule and symbolised the special relationship between Israel and God. Having more than one wife was like worshipping more than one god. None of the Talmudic rabbis is recorded as having more than one wife, even though there is one view that says one can marry as many wives as he can support (Yev. 65a).

Monogamy was by now axiomatic – rabbinic discussions speak of “man and wife”, not “man and wives” – and halachic rules were introduced in order to make polygamy unthinkable: thus it was suggested that a wife could sue for divorce if her husband took another wife (ibid.).

In the Middle Ages Rabbenu Gershom placed a ban on polygamy in northern France and Germany, and this became the rule amongst Ashkenazim. Non-Ashkenazim were not necessarily bound by this edict but even amongst them polygamy was rare.

The State of Israel prohibits polygamy. The only sanctioned form of bigamy in modern Judaism is the rarely utilised exception to the ban of Rabbenu Gershom whereby if, for example, a woman is incurably insane and cannot accept a gett, a man can be given permission by 100 rabbis to marry a second wife.

BEN BAG BAG & BEN HEY HEY

Q. I saw in the Siddur a reference to a rabbi called Ben Bag Bag and another called Ben Hey Hey. Can you explain how anyone would have such a crazy name?

A. The passage you are quoting is from the end of chapter 5 of the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers). Both rabbis, 1st century sages from the Land of Israel, are summing up the rewards that come from studying Torah. One gets the impression that they came to it from outside and found that their effort paid off.

Many scholars think they are converts (one view has it that they are one and the same person). Bag is composed of two Hebrew letters, bet and gimel, denoting 2 and 3 – added up they make 5, the numerical value of the letter hey, which was added to the names of Abraham and Sarah. Hey is one of the letters from the Name of God, and so Ben (son of) Bag Bag may have been given his name when he adopted Judaism. Likewise with Ben Hey Hey.

Ben Bag Bag plays a part in the halachic tradition, e.g. in the Sifra on Lev. 19:11-14, where he says, “Do not steal back from a thief that which he has stolen from you, lest you appear to be a thief.”

KOSHER XMAS FOOD?

Q. My local kosher baker was selling mince pies and fruit puddings before Xmas. I know the ingredients would have been kosher, but is it right for a Jewish shop to do this?

A. Why not? The people who buy kosher commodities aren’t all Jewish. In the United States, the kosher market has been found to attract millions of non-Jewish customers.

A friend of mine who runs a kosher fish and chip shop says it is the non-Jewish trade that keeps his business viable. I know kosher bakers who do a roaring trade in hot cross buns before Easter. Kosher butchers often have a sizable Muslim clientele.

Non-Jews often buy matzah (a Catholic bishop used to ask me to bring him a packet of matzah every time I came to a meeting where he would be present).

If all this makes it possible for kosher purveyors to keep afloat, it is to our community’s advantage.

(I take it for granted of course that items which have a clearly non-Jewish connotation such as hot cross buns should not be bought or eaten by Jews.)

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple. Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia's highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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POLYGAMY