Isn’t The Torah Concept of a Pilagesh (Concubine) Anti-Women?

Dear Jew in the City,

What is the difference between a pilegesh (concubine) and a wife in the Torah?


Dear S.D.-

For the answer to this, let us turn to tractate Kesubos in the Talmud Yerushalmi (5:2). There, the gemara asks your exact question. Rabbi Meir explains that a wife has a kesubah (marriage contract), while a pilegesh doesn’t. Rabbi Yuda says that even a pilegesh has a kesubah but a wife enjoys additional protections that a pilegesh does not enjoy. According to either opinion, it’s clear that concubinage is a form of marriage, it’s just that a pilegesh doesn’t enjoy as much legal protection as a full wife. (The fact that a pilegesh is a kind of wife is underscored elsewhere in the Yerushalmi, where it says that a man may not marry the close relatives of his pilegesh, the same as with a regular wife – see Yevamos 2:4.)

The Talmud Bavli – our “default” Talmud – also discusses this matter and its position is similar to that of the Yerushalmi but the details are a little more difficult to pinpoint. In the text as we have it, Rav Yehuda cites an opinion that a wife has a kesubah and kiddushin (referring to a part of the marriage ceremony) while a concubine does not have a kesubah and kiddushin (Sanhedrin 21a). The difficulty is that it is apparent that many prominent Rishonim had a version of the text saying that a pilegesh does have kiddushin, just no kesubah, the same as Rabbi Meir says in the Yerushalmi. (This variant reading can most easily be seen in Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 25:6 but it is also cited by the Ran, Raavad, Rivash, et al.)

No matter how you slice it, a pilegesh is a kind of quasi-wife. Some say that the word “pilegesh” is from the Aramaic “palgah isha,” meaning “half-wife.” (Others feel that it comes from the Greek pallakis – παλλακίς – which was a status in between “harlot” and wife.) In modern Hebrew, the word is used to refer to one’s mistress but like many other Biblical terms adapted into the vernacular (mamzer, zonah), the colloquial use does not reflect the word’s actual halachic meaning. A pilegesh is a kind of wife, not a mistress.

The Rambam briefly discusses the pilegesh in Hilchos Melachim 4:4. “Hilchos Melachim” means “laws of kings,” so why does the Rambam discuss the case of pilegesh there? Because he is of the opinion that only kings were allowed to have concubines. As the Rambam bluntly puts it, “a commoner is not permitted to have a concubine,” period. The Rambam may represent a minority opinion in this matter but there are other authorities who concur with his approach, including the Rashba, the Meiri and Rabbeinu Yonah (see Shaarei Teshuvah 3:94). The Shulchan Aruch rules that a couple is not permitted to live together without proper kiddushin and the courts can compel them to separate (Even Ha’ezer 26:1); the Rema there suggests that such a relationship might be a violation of the Biblical prohibition against harlotry (Deuteronomy 23:18).

Were concubines limited to kings? Let’s examine. There are only a handful of concubines in Tanach. Avraham and Yaakov both lived before the Torah was given so the prohibition wouldn’t apply to them. (If you want to assume that they voluntarily kept the Torah before it was given, as progenitors of the nation they were arguably the functional equivalent of kings anyway.) Gideon had a pilegesh in Judges chapter 8 and there’s the famous case of the “pilegesh b’Givah” in Judges 19; it could be that the limitation to kings didn’t kick in until there were kings. Otherwise, it could be that it was permitted to Gideon as Judge (the Judges were rulers of the nation before there were kings) and that the man in the story of the “pilegesh b’Givah” was acting outside the law. (The inappropriate behavior of people before there were kings is the entire point of those last few chapters of Judges.) Then there’s Saul and David, who were clearly both actual kings. And that’s it. Not a lot of concubinage going on. And in the Mishna and Gemara? Nothing. If this was ever really a thing, where are all the concubines?

The idea that a pilegesh is, or could be, a mistress or “side piece” represents wishful thinking on some people’s part. According to almost all authorities, a pilegesh would require kiddushin to initiate the relationship and a get (divorce) to end it. According to most authorities – who may or may not be the same as the latter authorities – concubinage is prohibited, either Biblically or rabbinically. There’s very little to justify trying to revive the practice. The only authority of any real standing to even suggest the possibility was Rav Yaakov Emden in the 18th century, and that never got any farther than a theoretical discussion. He wrote explicitly, “I do not want people to rely just on my opinion in this matter without the approval of the great scholars of the generation… One who wants to rely on my opinion in this matter must first consult with a Torah authority.”

So don’t mistake concubinage for a halachically-permitted means to have extramarital relationships without commitment. While authorities differ on the details, the bottom line is that it’s not permitted and there are strings attached. The only real difference between concubinage and marriage is the level of protection afforded the woman in the relationship. In our day and age, there ‘s a lot of discussion of “the agunah crisis,” get refusal and “the halachic pre-nup.” We’re looking for ways to strengthen the woman’s legal position. For a woman to enter into a marital relationship in which she waives even her baseline rights? That’s just a bad idea.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

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  • Avatar photo Judith Joyce says on June 28, 2020

    Hello Rabbi . What you don’t address in your pilegesh article is that both mistresses and pilegesh are about being unfaithful to the first wife . It’s not just important to protect a wife monetarily , but it is also important not to betray her in any form .

    • Avatar photo Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on June 28, 2020

      Thanks for your feedback, though you’re presupposing that a man who took a pilegesh already had a wife, which is not necessarily the case. Even in cases where he did, however, I think that you’re looking at things through 21st-century glasses.

      Imagine, if you will, a society in which people only had one child per family, on whom they doted. If your parents had a second child after you, dividing their attention, you might be resentful – and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong because in this case your parents would have acted outside of societal norms! Well, here, too, it’s a question of societal norms. You’re looking at things from the perspective of a monogamous society and yes, in our society, to bring a second wife into the relationship would certainly be an affront! But this was written for a society that permitted polygamy.

      Polygamy was never considered a good idea and it wasn’t recommended but it was permitted. Accordingly, bringing a second wife into the marriage – whether she’s called a wife or a concubine – wouldn’t be considered unfaithful or a betrayal any more than having two or three kids would be a “betrayal” of existing children in our society. (That doesn’t mean that wife #1 necessarily liked it but kid #1 in our might also object to the idea of siblings.)

      It should be noted that a man couldn’t take a second wife if it impeded his first wife’s various right – Exodus 21:10 – but it didn’t require her enthusiastic support. As for why polygamy should be permitted in the first place, see here: https://outorah.org/p/6088 Of course, we have neither concubinage nor polygamy today so the entire question is strictly academic.

  • Avatar photo judith Joyce says on June 28, 2020

    Rabbi, merely because something was customary in the past doesn’t mean it was ever normal or civilized, just like throwing prisoners to hungry tigers in ancient Rome was never normal. It just happened. The people in power were able to force cruelty upon the weak. Husbands were able to force their will on the women. That’s why every civilized society has abandoned polygamy , just like we don’t do gladiator fights or cannibalism anymore.

    • Avatar photo Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on June 29, 2020

      You’re making some very definitive statements but that doesn’t make them historically accurate. What is the source of your assertion that “husbands were able to force their will on the women?” Biblical Judaism was actually far ahead of the curve on such things. Women in Biblical times enjoyed property rights far beyond the norm. Under Jewish law, a man can’t marry a woman against her will, nor may a husband engage in marital intimacy against his wife’s wishes (or even if she’s asleep and unable to consent). Women have inalienable rights in marriage that for literally millennia have been codified in a marriage contract by which a husband must abide.

      The reason polygamy was previously permitted is that this month we might go to war against Aram and 10,000 men might be killed. Six months from now, we might go to war against Edom and 24,000 men might be killed. (Read the Bible through the Book of Kings to get an idea about the huge number of war casualties.) There was a tremendous gender imbalance because of this and the alternative was that women be deprived of the possibility of being a part of a family. Had you lived in those days, you very well might have appreciated having the option.

      • Avatar photo Judith Joyce says on June 29, 2020

        I would have appreciated the option of sharing a husband with other women as much as you would have appreciated sharing your wife with other men . Imagine if there were a shortage of women and that would have been your only opportunity to procreate and have marital relations . . One year for you and another year for him , then back to you again , maybe even under the same roof . I believe that men’s will was forced upon women because they were the ones who were in charge of society’s major decisions, and the human experience of jealousy is intrinsic . Divorce was a difficult option for a woman in that case because of financial struggles , stigma, family and community pressure to keep a family intact , unwillingness to break up a family , etc. If you want more examples of women getting a raw deal in Halacha , I can provide you with some .

        • Avatar photo Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says on June 30, 2020

          You are correct that I wouldn’t care for it but, like you, I was raised in this culture. I do, however, recognize that my worldview is not the only one. I would likely feel differently had I been born in Tibet, Nepal, or certain places in Northern India and central Africa where polyandry was (or still is) practiced. What seems abhorrent to me in 21st century USA might have seemed perfectly normal had I been raised in the Malwa region of Punjab. I don’t judge them that their society evolved differently than mine; there were reasons for it.

  • Avatar photo Judith Joyce says on June 30, 2020

    Thank you for your candidness. However, I believe that jealousy is intrinsic, not learned, to the human experience, in matters relating to intimacy. Sister wives also had to share their husband’s wealth, and not get whatever extra money was leftover spent on them. In other words, if there was extra money, instead of one wife getting extra household help, a nicer and bigger house, jewelry, clothing or whatever, she had to share the money with another woman and her children. The rivalry and pain from that had to be natural, and not learned. Moreover, polygamy continued well into the 20th century in Jewish communities in the east. The discussion here is not purely intellectual and theoretical. It is actually quite concrete, albeit to a lesser extent than in the distant past. Why do you think polygamy was abandoned in the whole western and civilized world? It had to have been bad. Can you think of another reason? Was it abandoned even though it had been working well for all?

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on June 30, 2020

      The way I see it – and Rambam has this approach to sacrifices – the Torah was given in a much worse world and the idea was to wean us of animal sacrifice, slavery and polygamy and the Halachic system was set up to be able to evolve society into a better world. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shared this approach with me as well.

  • Avatar photo Yocheved says on January 22, 2023

    The torah was supposed to be a guide for humanity forever, not a compromise for a horribly misogynistic society.

    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on January 22, 2023

      Thanks for your comment. The Torah was given in a very barbaric and cruel world. It was meant to move society to a more equal and compassionate place. It has tools to update as society updates. That’s what makes it eternal.


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