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July 17, 2012 12:00 pm

Sephardic Rabbi Endorses Concubine Scenario Under Jewish Law

avatar by Ezriel Gelbfish

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The Rape of The Levite's Concubine (Judges 19) by Nicolas Fontaine. Source: Emory University Image Archive

A Sephardic Rabbi in Israel has ruled that the taking of a concubine is an act that in certain instances is permissible by halacha, the code of Jewish law.

Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, a Talmudist who has published dozens of books and thousands of responsa on Jewish law, wrote in his recent publication Divrot Eliyahu  (Eliyahu’s Words) that a man prevented from having children, whether because his wife refuses to procreate or because she is unable to, may take a concubine with whom to procreate, because his first wife is “preventing him from building a family and spreading his seed,” adding even that “the concubine may also live with the couple.”

According to some Jewish legal definitions, a concubine is a woman who does not receive a kesuba, or marriage contract, from her husband, emphasizing the difference in social and domestic status between the main wife and the concubine, considered a mistress.

The 64 year old Rabbi Abergel is by no means a fringe voice, holding the title of Chief Judge of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court and heading the Tzuf Dvash rabbinical school in Jerusalem. Rabbi Abergel was also a previous contender for the title of Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a position that eventually went to Rabbi Shlomo Amar in 2003.

It is unclear if concubinage is practiced significantly in communities in Israel, or if it will increase based on the new ruling. However, Rabbi Abergel does relate that his ruling had practical implications for a head of a major Jewish institution, who was allowed to take a concubine after learning his first wife could not bear children.

Polygamy in its many forms has been a hotly contested subject of debate in centuries of Jewish law, most notably under the ban instituted by Gershom ben Judah’s synod of circa 1000 CE. The current ruling is specific to those whose childbearing attempts have been frustrated, and is additionally localized to Sephardi Jews, who have divergent legal customs from their Ashkenazi counterparts. Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions are sufficiently different to necessitate a separate post of Chief Rabbi in Israel for each of the two traditions.

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