The Ketubah: Evolutions in the Jewish Marriage Contract

Once a protection for women, the traditional ketubah has been critiqued by liberal Jews on several grounds.

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Excerpted with permission from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism edited by Rela Mintz Geffen (Jewish Publication Society).

Strictly speaking, a legitimate Jewish wedding has two fundamental requirements: First, both parties must enter the marriage voluntarily and willingly; second, their marriage must be accompanied by a ketubah. The term ketubah, which comes from the Hebrew verb "to write," refers to the traditional marriage document, in use since rabbinic times. The traditional ketubah stipulates the obligations that the husband takes on vis-à-vis his bride during marriage, as well as his financial obligations in the case of divorce. 

Over the course of marriage, the husband traditionally has three primary obligations to his wife: He must provide her with food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. Food and clothing, of course, represent the basic economic necessities of life, and the clear implication of the traditional ketubah text is that the husband will effectively provide for his wife's economic well-being. In the case of divorce, the ketubah requires the husband to pay the wife a sum of money, which is dependent on her marital history prior to the current marriage [that is, whether she is a virgin, a divorcée, or a convert].

marriage contractBecause the traditional ketubah text assumes that it is the husband who will provide for the wife, this document has come under attack by those seeking greater equality between men and women. Before briefly addressing the substance of this critique and the suggestions for making the ceremony more egalitarian, a word about the original intentions of the ketubah is in order.

Ketubah Originated as a Protection for Women

Though clearly the respective roles of the bride and groom as stated in the ketubah are not equal, it must be stressed that, far from being an intentionally misogynist document, the ketubah was originally created to protect women from being simply discarded by their husbands with no provision for their economic welfare. To that extent, the ketubah, despite its dated perception of social reality, was not a tool of repression, but actually a liberating document for women. The ketubah was considered so basic to a just marital relationship, in fact, that the Talmud commented that the fundamental distinction between a wife and a concubine was that a wife had to be given a ketubah, while a concubine did not. The rabbis further stipulated that a man was forbidden from living with his wife, even for one hour, without a ketubah.

Modernists Unhappy With Ketubah

These comments on the history and intent of the ketubah do not satisfy most couples who wish to equalize their roles in marriage. These couples, as well as many rabbis and feminist thinkers, point to several distinct difficulties with the traditional ketubah text:

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Rabbi Daniel Gordis

Rabbi Daniel H. Gordis is Director of the Jerusalem Fellows program and a member of the Senior Staff of the Mandel Foundation Sector on Jewish Education and Continuity. His most recent book, on the demise of peace in Israel, is entitled If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State; other books include God Was Not in the Fire: The Search for a Spiritual Judaism.