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Judaism: "Kosher Concubines"

In the days of the Bible, a man who had a pilegesh lived with her on a permanent basis, just like a wife. Avraham had a pilegesh, or handmaid, Ketorah, who bore him children, albeit of second status to Yitzchak, his son from his full-fledged wife Sarah.
Published: Sunday, November 05, 2006 2:34 PM


There is an old adage in the world of academia that says, "publish or perish." In the competitive world of university faculties, professors have to find ways to be among the campus stars in order to ensure their tenures. Perhaps this is what led Professor Tzvi Zohar to write his controversial article "Unwed Couples According to Jewish Law," which proposes to deal with the problem of sex between unmarried religious young people by renewing the biblical institution of the pilegesh, a sort of "kosher concubine."

First, it must be noted that Professor Tzvi Zohar is not a rabbi and not an authority in determining matters of Jewish Law. However, like some other lecturers and researchers who have discovered a fashion of deriving their own understandings of the Bible and Talmudic literature, he has published a supposed halachic [Jewish legal] study surely knowing that it would draw fire from the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate.

The Hebrew article appeared in the spring edition of the Israeli periodical Akdamot, which describes itself as a pluralistic academic journal designed to challenge its readers. The thesis of Zohar's article is that since scores of young men and women from the religious-Zionist community are shacking up together out of wedlock, something must be done to make this permitted in the eyes of Jewish Law. To his chagrin, these libidinous young people have nowhere to turn. Orthodox rabbis don't even want to discuss the problem, he claims. For, according to the rabbis, even hugging and kissing between unmarried people is strictly forbidden.

"But isn't this the reason for rabbis," Prof. Zohar asks, "to confer with them on every halachic issue? But it turns out that to ask a rabbi a serious question concerning men/women relations outside of wedlock, this is like asking them about the permissibility of eating the limb of a living animal - to their point of view, there is nothing to discuss."

Thus, when it comes to premarital sex, Professor Zohar maintains that there is not only a problem with current Jewish Law, but also with today's rabbis. To his understanding, there is no obligation for a couple to marry at all. However, in order that young unwed couples can have a clear conscience and shack up with each other until they find their permanent sanctified mates, he proposes to reinstate the Biblical practice of 'kosher mistresses.'

This practice, he asserts, has been approved by a long list of respected halachic authorities in the past. All that a pilegesh has to do is go to the mikvah (ritual bath) according to the laws of Jewish family purity, in order to guard against the grave infraction of niddah, which outlaws physical contact with a woman during and shortly after her menstrual cycle. This would allow, Zohar asserts, young people to live together in a loving relationship without getting married, all under the "chuppah" [canopy] of Jewish Law.

Before looking at some historical, halachic and social aspects of the pilegesh issue, I have to say that Zohar's thesis seems greatly exaggerated. As someone who regularly lectures groups of religious young people in Israel, I have not found many religious couples that actually live together out of wedlock. Certainly, there are cases where a boy will spend the night at a girl's apartment, which she shares with her friends, and they may even sleep alone in the same room - a serious no-no in itself - but widespread living together does not exist in the religious-Zionist community.

In the secular world, the situation is indeed distressing, but these young, free-spirited people are certainly not interested in keeping the strict laws of Jewish family purity demanded of a pilegesh. So, who really is Professor Zohar addressing, if not his fellow faculty at Bar-Ilan University, in order to draw attention on campus?

In the days of the Bible, a man who had a pilegesh lived with her on a permanent basis, just like a wife. Avraham had a pilegesh, or handmaid, Ketorah, who bore him children, albeit of second status to Yitzchak, his son from his full-fledged wife, Sarah. Yaacov had a similar relationship with Bilha, as is written, "And it came to pass when Yisrael dwelt in the land, that Reuven went in and lay with Bilha, his father's pilegesh, and Yisrael heard of it." (Bereshit 35:22)

From the Bible, we learn that the pilegesh had a minority status, like that of a handmaid, or 'kosher concubine.' The famous "pilegesh b'Givah" was looked at as a handmaid in the eyes of her master (Shoftim 19:21). Thus, socially, being a pilegesh was no badge of pride. When a king would go to visit his wife, he would do so in a royal, public manner; but when he went to his pilegesh, he would do so secretly (Bereshit Rabbah 52:5).

The purpose of this essay is not to present an in-depth halachic study on the issue of whether a pilegesh is forbidden or permitted according to Jewish Law. While Professor Zohar cites an impressive list of halachic authorities of the past who seem to allow the practice, his quoting of them is not always in the context of true, comprehensive halachic exegesis. Rabbi Shmuel Ariel points this out in a rebuttal article found in the same issue of the Akdamot journal.

Rabbi Ariel explains that the rabbinical authorities who permitted the institution of pilegesh were not talking about the kind of temporary relationships found among young people today, but rather, lifelong commitments. Regarding this important distinction, he emphasizes that all halachic authorities agree that passing sexual relationships between unmarried people are forbidden, as a form of whoredom, even if the woman goes to the mikvah. Rabbi Ariel cites that, according to Rashi and the Gaon of Vilna, the practice of pilegesh was, in fact, accompanied by a kosher marriage ceremony, or kiddushin, so that the daughters of Israel should not fall into harlotry. Contrary to this opinion, the Rambam states that pilegesh is indeed without kiddushin, but that it is an institution exclusively reserved for Jewish kings ("Laws of Kings", 4:4).

Thus the great Torah sage, Rabbi Yonah writes:
Our rabbis taught that the verse, "Do not prostitute thy daughter to cause her to be a harlot, lest the land fall to harlotry, and the land become full of lechery," comes to warn that a man should not give over his unmarried daughter for intercourse except in marriage... and a pilegesh without a marriage ketubah [contract] and kiddushin was only permitted to the king. (Gates of Repentance, part 3:94)
The halachic debate is long and detailed. Rabbi Ariel explains that even the rabbis who wrote that the pilegesh arrangement is without an official marriage ceremony forbade its actual practice, so as not to open a door to whoredom. These rabbis also expressed the concern that people who did not want to take upon themselves the yoke of marriage would also not take on the yoke of obeying the intricate laws of family purity and mikvah. As Prof. Zohar himself writes, this is the reason that halachic giants like the Ramban, the Ran and the Rosh, although permitting pilegesh in theory, all forbid it in actual practice. They all emphasize that the stigma of couples living out of wedlock would cause the woman to avoid going to the mikvah in order to avoid public knowledge and shame.

Although Zohar brings evidence that the practice of pilegesh was widespread a thousand years ago in Spain, Rabbi Ariel explains that this was done with kiddushin, not without. In fact, the only times Rabbi Ariel finds that pilegesh was selectively permitted was in situations where the woman was a lifelong mate and not just a passing love.

The Kabbalist Rabbi Eliahu Leon Levi says that a pilegesh was something exclusive to the times of the Bible. "One does not have to offer Kabbalistic explanations to understand that to renew the practice of pilegesh today would destroy the institution of Jewish marriage," he says.

Similarly, in another rebuttal printed in the same issue of Akdamot, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin takes strident exception to Professor Zohar's conclusions, saying that in calling for the legalizing of pilegesh, the adherent is leading the public astray: "There is a lack of responsibility in putting forth a proposal such as this without it coming from a team of experts, and without formulating a range of scenarios on how its implementation would affect the ethical, social and religious norms of the community - if it could even be implemented." And Rabbi Henkin summarizes by warning, "Whoever throws raw material into the cauldron will come out with a golden calf."

Prof. Zohar's article suggesting that the age-old practice of pilegesh be removed from the halachic closet, in order to let young religious people live together without being married, sparked controversy in the Orthodox world, just as he knew it would. In May, a conference of Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem discussed the issue of pilegesh and the greater issue of sexuality among today's religious youth.

Rabbi Yaacov Ariel, Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, stated: "Hiding behind claims of scientific objectivity, Zohar irresponsibly opened the way for wanton behavior. Our duty as rabbis is to encourage the holy institution of marriage, not to ape the licentiousness of the Western world, which places egotistical satisfaction before everything else."

For his part, Prof. Zohar insists he wrote his article not to launch a new pilegesh movement in Israel, but rather to arouse public discussion, in order to find a solution for religious young people caught in the web of love and passion.

Judging by the fervent speeches at the Jerusalem rabbinical conference, Zohar succeeded. In order to encourage young people to marry at an early age, and not to fall into the dangers of succumbing to sexual passions outside of wedlock, the rabbis debated the possibility of permitting the temporary use of contraceptives at the beginning of a marriage - something hitherto taboo. This, they suggested, in today's career-oriented society, would encourage early marriage by enabling the wife to pursue a higher education and profession without the pressure of caring for children.

Of course, not every rabbi concurs with this solution. "Woe to the rabbis who agree to such a thing," the Kabbalist Rabbi Levy warns. "First, one person puts forth a scheme to destroy Jewish marriage and then others come up with a scheme to prevent the birth of Jewish children."

At least one thing everyone can agree upon is that the issue of Jewish sexuality amongst religious youth is something that will continue to attract attention and debate in the future.