The Jewish tradition of polygamy is an ancient one, stemming back to the time of the patriarchs, the Kings, and at time times included common folk. However the tradition of monogamy was firmly entrenched by the second temple period, the approach that mongomy was the ideal family structure is hinted to in the prophets and becomes explicit in the words of the Talmudic sages. The Babylonian Geonim adopted the ruling of Rava, sanctioning polygamy. The Geniza documents reveal that polygamy was somewhat prevalent among Jews during the middle ages in Islamic countries and it was in the surrounding Muslim society. In contrast Jews of Northern France and Germany lived exclusively in monogamous marriages. All the sources from the eleventh century including halakhic rulings, commentaries, customs, and liturgy make reflect an exclusively monogamous society. This point is driven home in the Crusade Chronicle memorializing the names of those killed in the First Crusade of 1096, the entire list of martyrs does not contain a single family as having more than one wife (Pious and rebellious 73) It may be unequivocally asserted that during the eleventh century the Jews of Germany did not practice polygamy, maintaining monogamous relationships.
Despite the Ashkenaz Jewry's commitment to monogamy, sometime in the early part of the eleventh century R. Geshom ben Judah, known as the Meor Hagolah, light of the exile, issued a, takana, ordinance prohibiting bigamy. The ordinance was accompanied by the punishment of Herem, excommunication, the severe punishment used in Medieval Jewry. There are no existing French or German sources from the eleventh century in, in fact, the ordinance was not cited until the second half of the twelfth century. This had lead some scholars to believe that the ordinances were not issued by R. Gershom, but promulgated in the twelfth century and attributed them to him to lend the ordinances authority. In fact the first scholar to mention the takanot is the twelfth century sage R. Eliezer ben Nathan, who does not even mention the name of Rabbenu Gershom in association with these takanot, but refers to them as, takanot hakihilot, ordinances of the community. This does not necessarily imply the ordinances were not issued by R. Gershom; no single Rabbi's authority extended beyond his community, even R. Gershom initiated the ordinances for them to have been adopted by all of Ashkenaz they would have needed to be promulgated by individual leaders of Ashkenaz. The very practical question is why in an exclusively monogamous society of German Jewry was Rabbenu Gershom compelled to issue a ban on bigamy. Numerous scholars have grappled with this question producing differing approaches to this question using differing sources to determine the social realties of married life of German Jewry which would have necessitated this takana.
Some scholars including Eppenstein, Roth and Baron attribute the Ordinances of Rabbenu Gershom to the fact that there was, in some measure, polygamous marriage among the Jews of Germany, to which Grossman adamantly rejects. In his nearly century year old article, Eppenstein suggest that the reason for the institution of the ban on polygamy was the due to Jewish migrants from Muslim lands to Germany. According the Eppenstien the ordinance of Rabbenu Gershom banning multiple wives was directed at these immigrants who may already have two wives, as was practiced by Jewry in Islamic countries. Eppenstein solution as demonstrated by Roth is reliant on a shaky foundation to support its claims. Roth points out that it is difficult to imagine that Rabbenu Gershom instituted the ban on polygamy in order to break apart already existing polygamous marriages of Sephardic migrants to Germany. Additionally, Roth finds it hard to believe that ban was put in place in order to prevent the daughters of Germany's monogamous society from become second wives to Sephardic Jews. The remaining possibility, once the idea of dissolving pre existing polygamous marriages and preventing marriages of German women to already married Sephardic Jews has been eschewed, is to suggest preventing polygamous marriages among Sephardic immigrants.
Assumedly Roth accurately understood the options within Eppenstein's argument, that essentially, Rabbenu Gershom felt it necessary to ban polygamy because of the influx of Sephardic Jews into Germany. For this to be true Eppenstein must have felt that there was significant enough migration of Jews from the Muslim lands to Ashkenaz to warrant such a ban. However, Grossman states this was not the case; there was no substantial immigration of Jews from Islamic countries to Germany in the eleventh century or prior.
Roth, in his paper on the history of monogamy among Jews from biblical to medieval times, asserts that there were Jews of Germany who engaged in the practice of polygamy. This handful of polygamous German Jews was the reason the ban on polygamy was introduced by Rabbenu Gershom. Roth's view is not supported by contemporary sources but from an inference from a later Sephardic source. The inference is drawn from a response written by Maimonides where he accuses the Jews of France of being of the habit of taking more than one wife, and wasted their time in the company of their wives. Grossman dismisses this claim made of Roth, that methodologically this source cannot be used to support the idea the Rabbenu Gershom issued his ordinances to because there were polygamous elements of German society.
There are several critiques by Grossman why Roth's use of this Maimonides response is methodologically problematic. Firstly, Grossman contents that the source is only allegedly written by Maimonides and may have been attributed to Maimonides to lend it credibility and authority. Secondly, a source written by Maimonides is separated from the takanot of Rabbenu Gershom by well over a century, and perhaps even later if associating the response with Maimonides in order to capitalize on the Spanish scholar's prestige. Grossman concedes that even if the source were to have been penned by Maimonides it would be no proof to the polygamous nature of German Jewry. Maimonides reference to the polygamous marriages in France would refer not to the Ashkenazi lands of Germany and Northern France, but to the region of Provence, where there the population was influenced by Jews from Islamic lands.
Salo Baron hypothesizes, in his multi volume work A Social and Religious History of the Jews, the Jews of Germany were influenced by the works of Sephardic Jews which began to permeate the region. Jews of Western Europe, who had eschewed polygamy since the reign of France's Carolingian dynasty wished to reintroduce polygamy into Ashkenaz. This desire would have been predicated on the increased migration of Jews from Muslim countries to Germany and spread of Sephardic literary sources to Ashkenaz, which would have sanctioned multiple wives. Baron also argues that polygamy, spurred on by Sephardic influence, would have been more realistic during the tenth and eleventh centuries as the segregation between Jews and Christians became more pronounced, resulting in greater control of the Jewish communities by its leaders. This pressure by the community to accept bigamy compelled Rabbenu Gershom to issue his ban.
Although Baron stated that he was only hypothesizing when he suggested that the ban on bigamy was a reaction to the influence of Sephardic sources and immigrants proved to be partly true. Sources available only after the publication of Baron's work proved his theory regarding availability of Babylonian halakhic works and the influence of Babylonian traditions in Germany and France. The cross-polonaisation was not limited to books; some heads of Ashkenaz communities travlled to Babylonia, particularly the academy of Pumeditha in order to study under the tutelage of Rabbi Hai Goan. One example of Ashkenaz scholars studying in Babylonia is R. Elijah who established the Torah center in Northern France, studies extensively under R. Hai in Babylon and made several pilgrimages to the Holy Land (Grossman n.16). Despite veracity of Baron's claim based on the sources, Grossman contends that Sephardic influence, which permitted bigamy, on German Jewry did not provoke Rabbenu Gershom into issuing his ban.
Another approach to isolating the stimulus which necessitated Rabbenu Gershom to issue his ban against polygamous marriage is to look towards the Christian society which surrounded the Jews of Germany. This line of thinking is reflected in Zeev Flak's work Jewish Matrimonial Law in the Middle Ages. In his work Falk goes to great length to provide the context for Rabbenu Gershom's ban, starting in the mid ninth century when Pope Nicholas I (858-67) campaigned against polygamy in the Catholic Church. By the tenth century bigamy was not longer a problem among Christians, however, the Church attempted to curb concubinage and divorce among its devotees. By the tenth century the Church would acquire complete jurisdiction over personal status and family law (Falk 24); all the regulation promulgated by Church, including bigamy, were compiled by Buchard of Worms around the year 1020, however, Falk points out that this does not imply that transgressions catalogued in the book were being committed during the author's lifetime.
By the time of R. Gershom issues the Reformist Popes such as Gregory VII within the Church hierarchy, removing Priests who purchced their position along with impeaching Priests who did not uphold their vow of abstinence. Falk assets that the upheaval in Christian society, as the Church attempted to assert its authority over the family would have affected the Jewish communities dwelling in Christian towns "and come to understand certain cases of friction within their own families that they had never previously considered. (Falk 26)" Grossman rejects Falk's claim but concedes to the fact that the Jewish community would have been influenced by its Christian environment. However it is difficult to site the currents within Christian society as the main motivation for introducing the takanot in Jewish law. And although the sources such as Sefer Hasidim reflect that the Jews were aware that their marriage customs were the same as Christian society, Christian cannon law would not be adopted as Jewish halakha. Grossman also points out that there are no Christian polemic sources accusing the Jews of polygamy thereby making if difficult to look toward the influence of Christian society for instituting the ban on bigamy.
An n innovative solution to source of R. Gershom's ban is prescribed by M. Friedman in his book Ribbui Nashim be-yisrael. Friedman claims that in addition to the influence of the monogamous Christian society is the monogamous tradition of the Palestinian sages; perhaps the Jews of Germany preserved popular or family traditions corresponding to R. Ammi's position in support of monogamy. If such was the case the ordinance banning bigamy would was enacted by R. Gershom to preserve the German Palestinian tradition in support monogamy, albeit contrary to the halakha(Friedman quoted Grossman 19). Therefore, essentially, the takana of Rabbenu Gershom was an attempt to preserve the German tradition of monogamy.
Grossman feels that although family tradition was exceedingly integral to German Jewry, the sources do not support Friedman's hypothesis. Firstly the responsa of Rabbenu Gershom reflect his support for R. the Babylonian Amora Rava, permitting polygamy, and not the Palestinian Sage R. Ammi, who opposed it. There for is this source reflects R. Gershom's halakhic allegiance to Rava and the permissibility of polygamy it unlikely that he would enact and ordinance which contradicted his hakhic view. Therefore is we are to adopt this view it would not stand to reason that R. Gershom would issue anordinance which contradicted his halakhic position. Furthermore, if monogamy was a family tradition it may have been preserved by individual families and not enforced on the entire community. A possible criticism of Grossmans assessment of Friedman hypothesis is to suggest that it is possible for there to be an inconsistency between the halakha and the ordinance. Rabbenu Gershom may have held the strict halakha to be like Rava, permitting polygamy, but nevertheless issued the ordinance banning bigamy to demonstrate that the literal halakha was not to be observed.
Another approach, not cited by Grossman, was suggested by Gudemann and cited by Epstein in 1944 work Marriage Law in the Bible and Talmud. Epstein states that thinking until his time was that the ban was inspired by the monogamous Christian society of Germany at the time of R. Gershom. Gudemann, writing in 1888, stated that the Christians of Northern Europe were not above polygamy even centuries after the ban of R. Gershom. Gudemann posits that the ban was the culmination of an inner Jewish moral development which held an aversion to polygamy since the time of the Talmud, and Jews had employed various methods to ensure monogamy until formally doing so via the ban. The issue with this argument is that it is overly abstract and almost impossible to support itself based on sources. (Epstein)
Although several factors including, family traditions, surrounding Christian environment, or the influence of Babylonian texts and immigrants from Islamic lands, may have contributed to the establishment of the ban polygamy they do not sufficiently explain why it was necessary in a monogamous society. Grossman believes the ordinance was instituted in response to the lengthy international travels of German merchants. These merchants spent time in many countries including Provence, Spain, North Africa and other Muslim countries. These extensive international travels, which may have lasted several years, have been documented in the response literature. As well these travels may also be proved the penetration of technical commercial terms of Arabic language in the language of eleventh century German Jewry.
The most striking source which attests to the long absences of German merchants is the ordinance of R. Jacob Tam against prolonger absence of husbands from their families. The ordinance prohibits men from leaving his wife for any duration longer than eighteen months without her consent; the eighteen months is provided only that they are necessary for earning a livelihood. Secondly and man may not continue to stay away against the will of his wife, unless the court permits him. When returning from his travels a man must remain home with his wife for a minimum duration of six months. A man cannot leave his wife due to a quarrel, and may only travel in he is sincerely attached to his wife. This ordinance of Rabbenu Tam candidly reflects the reality in Ashkenaz; of men leaving their families in excess of eighteen months, and using travel as a way of avoiding a wife one was not committed to. This takana was reinstituted by R. Tam in the twelfth century when Ashkenaz Jewry's involvement in international trade was in the decline; it may be inferred that the situation of merchants leaving their abandoning their wife to trade was an even greater issue during the generation of Rabbenu Gershom.
For Grossman knowing the reality of international travel for Jewish German merchants during the time of Rabbenu Gerhsom is instrumental for understanding why the takana banning bigamy was adopted. With distant and lengthy travels, "it would not be the least supervising if the Jewish merchants sometimes married a second wife while they were so far from home for such a long time." (Grossman 12) Grossman maintains that is would be possible for Ashkenazi men to travel to communities were polygamy was permitted and marry local women; upon returning home they may divorce their new wives or abandon them until they returned to the region to trade.
A source supporting Grossman's view can be found in the response of R. Isaac Alfasi who was active in Northern Africa and Spain during the eleventh century. R. Alfasi was asked about a case where a man married a women, which he later abandoned leaving her an agunah, married and second women in another country. The case deals with a Jew living in Muslim Spain who traveled between regions within Spain, Grossman contents that there is no reason to believe that a German Jew would not behave in the same way, taking advantage of possibility to marry multiple wives in Sephardic lands.
Another Sephardic source used by Grossman to support his hypothesis regarding the establishment of polygamous relationships by German Jews with Sephardic source can be found in the response of Maimonides in the twelfth century. Maimonides issued an ordinance preventing the marriage of Egyptian women to foreign men unless the man can prove that he is unmarried or willing to swear an oath to that effect; If he is married he cannot marry in Egypt until he divorces his current wife. Additionally, a foreign man marries an Egyptian woman wants to leave the country on business he must provide his wife a bill of divorce which will come into effect at appointed time, maximum three years (Grossman 13, quoted N. 29). Grossman emphasizes the second part of the ordinance requiring foreign men to provide a bill of divorce to his Egyptian wife before leaving the country. Such an ordinance reflects a reality where foreign men, perhaps from the communities under the authority of R. Gershom, married Sephardic women during their journeys to Muslim countries only later to abandon them. While the takana of R. Gershom was enacted to protect the status of women in Germany, Maimonides ordinance was necessary to protect the women of Egypt from foreign travelers.
Grossman's thesis is hampered by fact that there are no German sources which connect prolonged absences of German merchants with the takana of Rabbenu Gershom. Sephardic sources to understand the situation in Germany. Maimonides ordinance was issued over a century after the takanot of Rabbenu Gershom, and may not have reflected the same reality of the time, besides that it is difficult to assume the situation in Egypt can be correlated with the necessity of the ban on bigamy in Germany. The same issue exists with the response of R. Aflasi which requires a leap to assume that the case reflects similar cases where traveling Ashkenazim took Sephardic women as second wives. Grossman defends this critique by stating the there was no reason for German Jewry to write response regarding the issue since there was no halakhic issue with a man taking a second wife, the greater issue was in the Islamic lands where women might be abandoned by foreign husbands.