The Jewish Marriage Contract In All Its Beauty

Today, the Ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, is an essential part of the Jewish marriage ceremony and of Jewish married life.  While certain obligations of a Jewish husband towards his wife are mentioned in Sh'mot 21:10 and 11, there is no specific mention of a Ketubah or any formal marriage contract in the Torah.  It is believed that the first Jewish marriage contracts were written during the Babylonian exile (586-536 BCE); essentially to protect the woman's right to her property that was held in her husband's name throughout her married life.

Over the course of the next few centuries, the Ketubah developed as a legally-binding document fundamentally protecting a Jewish woman's rights in her marriage.   The document encompasses a rather well-rounded list of the husband's obligations to his wife, including her physical wellbeing, her relationship with her husband, her financial rights, as well as a sum to be paid by the Jewish husband (or his estate) to his wife upon his death or dissolution of the marriage.

I believe it is also interesting to note that the phrase "according to the custom of the daughters of Israel" or "according to custom" is used in the Ketubah to indicate the measure or extent to which the groom must provide for his bride's needs.  These phrases are used since specific customs, personal and communal circumstances and associated traditions may change from one period to another and from one country to another, but the Jewish husband's basic obligations to his wife must never change.

In the ancient world, a husband had no specific legal obligations toward the woman (or women) he married and a husband could dissolve a marriage at his own whim, leaving his wife destitute, desperate and without any rights or protections.  The standardization of a written, structured marriage contract, the Ketubah, helped to ensure that the idea of divorcing a wife was not treated as an "offhand" act that could easily be accomplished or carried out without any consequences.  The original Ketubah wording, written in Aramaic, was set down in the Talmud and this version (with minor modifications) is still used today in Orthodox Ashkenazi weddings. 

Originally the groom read the Ketubah out loud to the bride and in the presence of others.  Two witnesses, unrelated to the bride or groom, would then sign the document; thus attesting to the groom's agreement to the Ketubah's conditions.  Today, a rabbi usually reads the Ketubah, as he stands under the chuppah with the bride and the groom (and usually with a large gaggle of family members and friends).  The rabbi then hands the Ketubah to the groom, who then hands the Ketubah to the bride. The bride's acceptance of the Ketubah signifies her acceptance of her marriage to the groom.  Today, in orthodox tradition, only the two witnesses must sign the Ketubah in order to make it valid and binding. 

From its humble beginnings as a simple, hand-written legal document meant to protect the Jewish wife throughout her marriage, the Ketubah has become a large-format, colorfully illuminated document handwritten or machine printed and adorned on vellum or high-quality paper. The Ketubah has become a treasured piece of artwork, mounted and framed and given pride of place on walls in Jewish homes throughout the world.  I've read that for many new couples, the Ketubah is the first piece of artwork they hang on the wall in their new home. 

The concept of decorating and illuminating religious documents and ritual objects is a Jewish tradition dating back centuries and is based on the concept of He'dur Mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah). From the times of the Mikdash and later in both Ba'tey Ha'mik'dash, ritual objects such as the menorah, the priestly robes and so much more were designed in gold, richly decorated and embellished. Through the centuries this idea of beautifying and embellishing religious articles both for the synagogue and the private home has expanded to include everything from mezuzot and washing cups, to Shabbat candlesticks, challah boards, Seder plates, tablecloths, hav'dallah sets, challah and matza covers, charity boxes and the list goes on and on and on.  

The beautification and illumination of religious manuscripts and documents have a special place in the world of He'dur Mitzvah; scribes and artisans have illuminated and embellished Megilot, Ketubot and Mizrach signs* for many hundreds of years.

The level of sophistication of decoration and illumination of a Ketubah was as much a sign of the prosperity of the families, as well as a sign of the prevailing cultural climate of the Jewish community and the surrounding gentile community. Ketubot have been illuminated with everything from symbols of state, national flags, paper cuts and crowns to biblical symbols and mythical creatures.  Today there are perhaps hundreds of examples of illuminated Ketubot, with surviving fragments of Ketubot from as early as the 10th and 11th centuries.  I believe the reason these ancient illuminated Ketubot have survived is because these documents have been passed down from generation to generation as part of a family legacy.

Lea Haviv, the talented Judaica artist, has given her kind permission to re-print two examples of her gorgeous, hand-illuminated ketubot for this article.
Beautifully illuminated Ketubah in a traditional format

Ketubah with text written as a micrographic design of the Holy Temple 
For more information on Lea's work:

The following is a basic English translation of the Ketubah's aramaic text.
On the Jewish day of the week, on the Jewish date of the Jewish Month, in the Jewish year from the time of the creation of  the world, as we reckon time, here in Name of City, the Groom's name, son of the Groom's father  said to the Bride's name, daughter of the Bride's father, "Be my wife according to the practice of Moses and Israel, and I will cherish, honor, support and maintain you in accordance with the custom of Jewish husbands who cherish, honor, support, and maintain their wives faithfully. And I here present you with the marriage gift in the amount of  (usually two hundred) silver zuzim **, which belong to you, according the Law; and I will also provide you with food, clothing and necessities, and live with you as husband and wife according to universal custom."

And Name of Bride consented to become his wife. And this dowry that she brought from her name of  her father 's (if he is living) house, whether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, furnishings or bedding, the Name of the Groom accepted responsibility for all in the amount of  (usually one hundred) zuzim, and agreed to add to this amount from his own assets the amount of  zuzim, for a total amount of  zuzim. The Name of the Groom
said: "The obligation of this Ketubah, this dowry and this additional sum, I accept upon myself and my heirs after me, to be paid from all the best part of all my property that I now possess or may hereafter acquire, real and personal. From this day forward, all my property, even the shirt on my back, shall be mortgaged and liened for the payment of this Ketubah, dowry and additional sum, whether during my lifetime or thereafter." The obligation of this Ketubah, this dowry and this additional sum, was accepted by Name of the Groom with the strictness established for ketubot and additional sums customary for the daughters of Israel, in accordance with the decrees by our Sages of blessed memory. This Ketubah is not to be regarded as a formality or as a perfunctory legal form. We have established the acceptance on the part of Groom's name, son of the Groom's father  to Bride's name, daughter of the Bride's father, of this contract, all of which is stated and specified above, with an article (or garment) for that purpose.

And all shall be valid and binding.

Witnessed by _________________

Witnessed by _________________

* Mizrach sign: Mizrach, in Hebrew, literally means East.  The word, illuminated and framed is hung on the wall facing Jerusalem in homes, religious schools and synagogues around the world.  The wall facing Jerusalem is the direction in which all Jews pray three times a day.


** In Israel, this sum is sometimes written in Israeli Shekels. Just as a few interesting points: I have attended weddings where the ceremony was halted mid-way through the reading of the Ketubah when the bride's family did not agree to the amount stated and there have been cases where the amount stated was so large that, under the Chuppah and in the midst of reading the Ketubah, the rabbi inquired whether the groom truly understood the full implications of this financial promise.

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