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Pilegesh (Hebrew: פִּילֶגֶשׁ) is a Hebrew term for a concubine, a marital companion of social and legal status inferior to that of a wife.[1] Among the Israelites, men commonly acknowledged their concubines, and such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate wives.[2]


In Judaism, concubines are referred to by the Hebrew term pilegesh (Hebrew: פילגש). The term pilegesh appears to be an Indo-European loanword related to Ancient Greek: παλλακίς pallakis, meaning 'concubine'.[3][4][5]

In the Hebrew of the contemporary State of Israel, pilegesh is often used as the equivalent of the English word mistress—i.e., the female partner in extramarital relations—regardless of legal recognition. Attempts have been initiated to popularise pilegesh as a form of premarital, non-marital or extramarital relationship (which, according to the perspective of the enacting person(s), is permitted by Jewish law).[6][7][8]

There are many definitions for what a pilegesh relationship is. In the Eastern world, pilegesh fit into the complex family organization and the woman had more of a distinct legal and social position, whereas in the later Western world, pilegesh was regarded as a long-term sex companionship between a man and a woman who could not or would not be married.

Biblical references[edit]

Several biblical figures had concubines when they were not able to create natural children with their wives. The most famous example of this was with Abraham and Sarah. Sarah gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham while maintaining ownership of both maidservant and offspring. Their union produced Ishmael. Hagar gained the status of full wife in regards to Abraham, but nonetheless Sarah retained the status of main wife. This type of pilegesh is recorded in Jewish sources as being a singular case. All later cases of pilegesh recognized the pilegesh and guaranteed similar rights in the house as the legitimate wife.

Since having children in Judaism was considered a great blessing, legitimate wives often gave their maids to their husbands so they could have children with them when those women themselves were childless, as in the cases of Leah and Zilpah and Rachel and Bilhah. The concubine commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife, and it was regarded as the deepest dishonor for the man to whom she belonged if hands were laid upon her. Even in the exceptional case of Sarah and Hagar, Abraham would have been obligated to treat Hagar as a full wife and she would have been treated as an equal by Abraham. Sarah's rights would have been regarding the technical legal status of being considered the inheritor and since the other wife and offspring would have been hers by ownership she became the legal albeit not biological mother of Ishmael.[9]

Legal characteristics[edit]

According to the Babylonian Talmud,[2][10] the difference between a pilegesh and a full wife was that the latter received a marriage contract (ketubah) and her marriage (nissu'in) was preceded by a formal betrothal (kiddushin), which was not the case with the former.[11] According to Rabbi Judah, however, the pilegesh should also receive a marriage contract, but without including a clause specifying a divorce settlement.[2] According to Rashi, "wives with kiddushin and ketubbah, concubines with kiddushin but without ketubbah"; this reading is from the Jerusalem Talmud.[1]

Certain rabbis, such as Maimonides, believed that concubines are strictly reserved for kings, and thus that a commoner may not have a concubine;[citation needed] indeed, such thinkers argued that commoners may not engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage. Maimonides was not the first Jewish thinker to criticize concubinage; for example, it is severely condemned in Leviticus Rabbah.[12] Other rabbis, such as Nachmanides, Samuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus, and Jacob Emden, strongly object to the idea that concubines should be forbidden.[citation needed]

According to Rabbi Mnachem Risikoff, the institution of pilegesh is an alternative to formal marriage which does not have the same requirements for a get upon the dissolution of the relationship.[13]

Any offspring created as a result of a union between a pilegesh and a man were on equal legal footing with children of the man and his wife.[2]

The leaders of the pilegesh controversy are Maimonides and Nahmanides. Maimonides believed pilegeth should be prohibited legally while Nahmaides believed in permitting legally but discouraging ethically.

Pilegesh was a way for a man with many resources to care for women other than the wife, bring in another woman to help his wife with her duties, have offspring if his wife was infertile, and create companionship without legal ties.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Concubine". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d Staff (2002–2011). "PILEGESH (Hebrew, ; comp. Greek, παλλακίς).". Jewish Encyclopedia. JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  3. ^ Michael Lieb, Milton and the culture of violence, p. 274, Cornell University Press, 1994
  4. ^ Marc Lee Raphael, Agendas for the study of Midrash in the twenty-first century, p. 136, Dept. of Religion, College of William and Mary, 1999
  5. ^ Nicholas Clapp, Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, p. 297, Houghton Mifflin, 2002
  6. ^ Matthew Wagner (16 March 2006). "Kosher sex without marriage". The Jerusalem Post. Archived from the original on 3 May 2014. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  7. ^ Adam Dickter, "ISO: Kosher Concubine", New York Jewish Week, December 2006
  8. ^ Suzanne Glass, "The Concubine Connection" Archived 3 January 2013 at archive.today, The Independent, London 20 October 1996
  9. ^ Orach Chayim: Laws of the Handmaiden.
  10. ^ Sanhedrin 21a
  11. ^ "PILEGESH (Hebrew, ; comp. Greek, παλλακίς)". Jewish Virtual Library.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ Leviticus Rabbah, 25
  13. ^ Between Civil and Religious Law: The Plight of the Agunah in American Society, Irving Breitowitz, Greenwood Press, 1993. By coincidence, Breitowitz's book was reviewed by Risikoff's grandson, Rabbi Steven Resnicoff, in Jewish Action, Winter 1994, Vol. 55, No. 2.

External links[edit]