Questions of bigamy in Israel: Legal grounds

Bigamy involves someone marrying a person while he or she is still legally married to another.

Marriage process (photo credit: REUTERS)
Marriage process
(photo credit: REUTERS)
You might think that in a highly organized society with a high level of transparency such as ours, it would be practically impossible to commit the act of bigamy. Bigamy involves someone marrying a person while he or she is still legally married to another.
In fact, bigamy is a surprisingly easy crime to commit. A person married in Israel can, without difficulty, get married to somebody else in Cyprus.
Inasmuch as bigamy does take place, various questions arise upon the death of the delinquent husband. Both women are often deemed to be legally married. So, in such a case, which one inherits?
This question is applicable, in particular, with two population groups in Israel. First, to a certain degree, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world does not recognize marriages contracted by Jews abroad to non-Jews.
A fairly common situation, and one that arises in Israel, is that of the “newly religious” (hozrim b’tshuva) – who come from abroad and, in all innocence, consider that just as their new religious principles do not recognize a marriage between themselves and someone out of the faith, this too applies to Israeli law.
It doesn’t.
People who have married in a civil ceremony outside the State of Israel are considered married by private international law until that marriage is legally and formally dissolved. Newly religious people who do not bother to go through the civil divorce and simply remarry here in Israel through a rabbi, and without reference to the civil authorities, are committing the crime of bigamy and are liable to the penalties prescribed by law. This is not a workable situation, and in fact, everybody goes to jail, including the rabbi and the witnesses.
One of the more interesting and surprising clauses in the Inheritance Act 1965 is Section 146, which states that if a man is married to two women, the two widows share his estate equally. Inasmuch as Israel has laws against bigamy since 1959, it is surprising that the Inheritance Act focuses its attention on what is essentially a criminal act. An obvious question arises: How can a person benefit from a crime, i.e. becoming an heir because of a criminal act of marrying two people?
One thing is certain and that is that bigamy is considered a crime and penalties are on the statute book to deter people from entering into these illegal relations.
Israel is not alone. In fact, Jewish halachic legislators were at the forefront of outlawing bigamy as far back as the year 1000, when Rabbi Gershom Ben Yehuda ruled polygamy inadmissible within Ashkenazi Jewish communities living in a Christian environment. However, this ruling was not recognized by Sephardi and Yemenite communities. But bigamy is a crime in most Western countries, and in very many cases one of the wives is not even aware of the existence of the other. In many Middle Eastern countries bigamy is permitted, e.g. in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt (if the first wife agrees). But most European and Western countries take a dim view of this practice. In Belgium, one can go to jail for 12 years for bigamy and in New Zealand seven years. It is illegal in every state in the United States and punishable by up to five-years imprisonment and up to seven years in the United Kingdom. Section 176 of the Israeli Penal Law states that: “A married man who marries another woman, man, is liable to five years imprisonment.”
But does this actually happen in real life? Do the police actually prosecute?
There was a case several years ago where a Bedouin who was married to three (!) wives was prosecuted, found guilty and sent to jail. However, in reality, this is a very rare situation because, even though statistically among the Bedouin population polygamy is fairly common, (around 20-36% of the population, according to some experts), the law is hardly ever enforced.
Naturally, the Bedouin situation is different than most populations in Israel because of delicate cultural, historical and religious connotations and is thus treated with kid gloves. Contrast that with the way the State of Israel dealt with Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, some of whom came with multiple wives. The state was wise enough to leave well alone those who were already married, but in 1959 enacted a draconian law (the Penal Law Amendment (Bigamy) Law, 5719-1959) forbidding any polygamy in the future and, in fact, this has become the norm in Israel – despite differing cultural and historical backgrounds.
The writers are senior partners in a law firm based in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Their new book, The Complete Guide to Wills and Inheritance in Israel (Israel Legal Publications), is available on Amazon.