Pilegesh is related to the Greek pallax/pallakis, "mistress" or "lover-girl", and the Aramaic/Hebrew palga isha, "half a wife".
A pilegesh was recognized among the ancient Hebrews and enjoyed the same rights in the house as the legitimate wife. Since it was regarded as the highest blessing to have many children, while the greatest curse was childlessness, legitimate wives often gave their maids to their husbands to atone, at least in part, for their own barrenness, as in the cases of Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Zilpah, 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.
According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 21a), the difference between a pilegesh and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal ("kiddushin"), which was not the case with the former. According to R. Judah, however, the concubine also received a ketubah, but without the aliment pertaining to it.
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.
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, feeling guilty about her inability to give Abraham children, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham. Their union created Ishmael.
Other biblical figures such as Gideon, David, and Solomon had concubines in addition to many childbearing wives. The Book of Kings mentions that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; the wives were royal princesses with dowries, while concubines had no dowries.
Certain Jewish thinkers, such as Rambam (Maimonides), have declared that the act of acquiring a concubine is prohibited under Jewish law; he has noted that concubines are strictly reserved for kings and that a commoner may not have a concubine or engage in any type of sexual relations outside of a marriage. Others, like the Ramban (Nahmanides), Shmuel ben Uri, and Yaakov Emden, strongly object to this claim.
Some suggest that Rambam's published view was meant to shape a public policy in response to the prohibition of mutah relationships by Sunni Muslims, which are in many ways similar to pilegesh relationships, just as the ban on polygamy by Rabbeinu Gershom was made only subsequently to the Christian prohibition of it that effectively changed the law of the land.
In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, the word "pilegesh" is often used as the equivalent of English "mistress" - i.e. the female partner in extramarital relations even when these relations have no legal recognition. There are attempts to popularize pilegesh relationships as forms of premarital, non-marital and extramarital relationships permitted by halacha.
- Kosher sex without marriage Jpost By Mathew Wagner
- "ISO: Kosher Concubine" New York Jewish Week by Adam Dickter December 2006
- THE CONCUBINE CONNECTION The Independent - London October 20, 1996 SUZANNE GLASS