The Ketuba, the Jewish Marriage Agreement


The Ketuba, the Jewish Marriage Agreement


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The Kethubah - A Sacred Contract

By Yehuda Posnick

Karl Marx in his essay, On the Jewish Question, writes in exasperation about Judaism's mercenary nature, "They [the Jews] even sell their own daughters in marriage!" This comes from a prejudiced misreading of the opening of Talmud, in the tractate of Kiddushin, which states that "a woman is acquired in one of three ways". The renowned commentator Rashi writes a pithy and enigmatic statement on this excerpt: "'A woman is acquired' - to her husband." It is explained that the acquisition here is different than any other acquisition such as land or moveable property - once a man acquires a woman, he can't give her to someone else. Thus the name of the tractate is Kiddushin - which is best translated "consecration". The transfer of money is an act that symbolizes the start of a unique union between the bride and groom.

A similar case can be made for another appurtenance of the marriage ceremony that also seems rather mercenary, yet it is the focus of such a significant event in the couple's life: the kethubah. It is usually referred to as a marriage contract, and is replete with monetary obligations that the husband has taken upon himself, and similar obligations of the wife.

What is the origin of the kethubah, and what is its central significance in the marriage ceremony?

The kethubah was instituted in the time of the Mishnah. The Sages enacted it so that "it should not be easy for the husband to divorce his wife". Some are of the opinion it is not a Rabbinic decree, but a requirement from the Torah as stated: "he shall pay money according to the dowry of maidens (Exodus 22:16)".

The kethubah states that upon death of the husband or divorce, the husband (or his estate) is obligated to pay the wife 200 zuz, if this is her first marriage, or 100 zuz, if she was previously widowed or divorced. A zuz was the currency of the time of the Mishnah. Two hundred zuz is the amount of money that can provide the woman with food and clothing for an entire year. This allows her time to remarry, if she so desires, without being burdened with earning a livelihood. (Those who go according to the S'fardic ritual update the money amount to the currency and expenses of the present time and place.)

The Sages of the Mishnah attached such importance to their enactment that they ruled that it is forbidden for a man to live with his wife even one instant without a ketubah. Living with a woman without any financial obligation towards her is considered licentious behavior.

Let's have a look at an example of the text of a ketubah (translated from Code of Jewish Law, by R. Shlomo Ganzfried). A modern day ketubah would differ only in the date, location and of course the names:

    On Tuesday, the 8th day of Tammuz, in the year 5611 from the Creation of the World, according to the calculation of the city of Ungvar, we witnessed how the young man Moshe, the son of the esteemed rabbi Binyamin, said to the bride, Sarah, the daughter of the esteemed rabbi Avraham, "Be my wife, according to the law of Moshe and Israel. I will serve, honor, sustain and provide for your needs according to manner that of Jewish men that faithfully serve, honor, sustain, and provide for the needs of their wives. I have given you the sum of 200 zuz of silver, according to the law of the Torah, and will provide food, raiment, and other basic needs, and live with you as is the custom of the entire world".
    The maiden Sarah agreed [to the terms] and will become his wife, bringing along the dowry as provided for from her father's house, either in silver or gold, jewelry, raiment, and furniture. Moshe, the bridegroom, has received the above dowry for 100 pieces of pure silver, and he has agreed to add on of his own another 100 pieces of pure silver—the entire sum being 200 pieces of pure silver.
    Thus did the Moshe, the bridegroom, declare: "The collateral of this deed of the ketubah, this dowry and addition of my own, I have taken upon myself and my inheritors after me [for the bride] to collect from all the possessions and property that I have anywhere under the heavens, that I have either already acquired or will acquire, either from real-estate or moveable property. All of the above will serve as collateral for payment of this ketubah, the dowry and addition of my own promised money, even if necessary to be paid from the very garment to be taken off from my shoulders, either during my lifetime [in the event of divorce] or after my passing, from this day onwards."
    The payment of this ketubah, the dowry and the additional money Moshe has taken upon himself, with all the strictures of all ketubahs and additions that are customary among the daughters of Israel, which are made according to the ordinance of the Sages, and not as a mere asmachta [an agreement based on assumption that both sides concur] or a simple agreement to a blank form.
    We have made the act of acquisition [which makes the above document binding], from R. Moshe the son of the esteemed rabbi Binyamin, the bridegroom, to Sarah the daughter of the esteemed rabbi Avraham, the bride, according to all that has been written and stated above, by means of a instrument that is fit to perform the act of purchase.
    All of the above is firmly established and binding.
    [The two witnesses affix their signatures here]

Around 20 years ago, the noted author and literary critic, Harold Bloom, published a book entitled "The Book of J". The book has a rather controversial thesis, positing that Bible was authored by a woman. (Considering that the Bible is No. 1 worldwide on the bestseller list, it would be interesting to figure out how wealthy this theoretical author would be at this point.) Although the thesis is of course untenable from the traditional standpoint, it is nonetheless interesting to understand why Mr. Bloom says such a thing. The main points of his argument are:

  1. The Bible has a unique focus on the rights of women, much more that the legal codes authored in that same period of time in other cultures.
  2. The Matriarchs Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, seem to have had the final word in their relationship with their husbands—the Patriarchs simply comply with what their wives tell them.

In any event, one viewing Jewish law objectively will see that a tremendous amount of the codified law is concerned with protecting women's rights. The standardization of the ketubah is another expression of this concern.


from the January 2006 Edition Jewish Magazine




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