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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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The ketubah: a document of devotion

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It’s not too often that you find a legal document that can also be a stunning work of art illustrating love and commitment.

The ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, has for thousands of years detailed a husband’s obligations to his wife during marriage and his responsibilities in the case of divorce. Beyond that, the ketubah has become a prized piece of Judaica that artists have elevated to become a document of devotion.

If it’s time to choose the design for your own ketubah, mazel tov on your engagement! And even if you’re not getting married, you still can enjoy a tour of one of Judaism’s most interesting and beautiful documents.

According to the Ohr Somayach site, “this contract is ordained by Mishnaic law [circa 170 CE] and according to some authorities dates back to biblical times. The ketubah, written in Aramaic, details the husband’s obligations to his wife: food, clothing, dwelling and pleasure. It also creates a lien on all his property to pay her a sum of money and support (200 zuz and 200 silver pieces) should he divorce her, or predecease her.”  [http://bit.ly/ketuba1]

In the Value and Significance of the Ketubah, Rabbi Michael Broyde and Jonathan Reiss investigate whether a ketubah can be legally enforced in the United States. In short: probably not. [http://bit.ly/ketuba8]

Most ketubot in recent centuries have conformed to a standardized text but as Eliezer Segal points out, some ancient ketubot addressed the termination of the marriage at the initiative of the husband and even the wife. Here’s an excerpt from the oldest existing ketubah, dating from the fifth century BCE and originating on the island of Elephantine in the Nile. “If at some time, Ananiah should stand up before the assembly and declare: ‘I reject my wife, Jehoshama. She shall not be my wife!’ then he is obligated to pay divorce money… And if Jehoshama should reject her husband, Ananiah, and declare before him, ‘I reject you and will not be your wife!’ then she shall be obliged to pay the ‘divorce money.’” [http://bit.ly/ketuba5]

For more on the history of the ketubah, visit the entry at the Jewish Encyclopedia. [http://bit.ly/ketuba6]

The traditional ketubah is written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonian Jews.

Many modern variations – Conservative, Reform, egalitarian, etc. – have been crafted recently. [http://bit.ly/ketuba2] For example, the Conservative ketubah includes the “Lieberman clause,” which was added to allow either the man or the woman to initiate a divorce. Check with your rabbi before selecting your text. [http://bit.ly/ketuba3]

As well, another site advises, “For those couples intending to make aliyah to Israel, it is preferable to choose the Orthodox ketubah text… so there will be no problems concerning its validity before the Israeli bet din.” [http://bit.ly/ketuba4]

Although the ketubah is essentially a legal document, the adornment of this document is a cherished tradition. As Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library eloquently puts it: “These decorations transform the ketubah from a dry legal document into a work of art, and a window into the world and culture of the Jewish communities that produced them.” [http://bit.ly/ketuba7]

Next time, online ketubah galleries – classic and modern – and tips for creating your own.

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