The Ketubah Text

The traditional Aramaic text of the ketubah (marriage contract) reflects the history of Jewish marriage.

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This article explains the first half of the traditional ketubah, including the proposal and funds committed to the marriage from the bride's family and the groom. "Explaining the Ketubah Text (Part 2)" describes the additional gift from the groom, contractual protections for his wife, and how the ketubah is sealed.

In liberal communities the bride and groom often write more egalitarian ketubot that reflect their goals for the marriage--either in place of or in addition to the traditional ketubah. Both liberal and some traditional Jews may include a prenuptial agreement in their ketubah that would require the groom to give the bride a get, or Jewish bill of divorce, should the marriage end. Reprinted from The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage by permission of Jonathan David Publishers.

The Date and Place of the Wedding

"On the _______ day of the week, the _______ day of the month _______ in the year _______ since the creation of the world according to the reckoning which we are accustomed to use here in the city of _______ in _______ "

 

The Date. The law prescribes that the date appear at the beginning in private agreements, but at the end in court agreements. Though the ketubah has the status of a court decree, it is in the nature of a private agreement and so the date is placed first.

The Place. The same rationale is used for the place. A divorce document contains more geographical information (e.g., mention of a neighboring river). The Sephardim [Jews of Spain who, after the Expulsion, emigrated to North Africa and the Middle East] retained this custom, and Rema, in the 16th century, urged that the technicalities of the ketubah follow those of the divorce. But the Talmud simplified the ketubah and the Jews of Europe have followed that tradition.

The Groom, the Bride, & the Proposal

"… _______ son of _______ of the family _______ said to this maiden _______ daughter of _______ of the family _______ "Be thou my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel."

The Names. Their Hebrew names, their fathers' names, and usually, though not always, their family names. The mother's name is given when praying for recovery from illness, as a symbol of mother's compassion. A father's name is used in legal matters, just as a father's family name has always been used in legal affairs. [Today, though, many liberal Jews include the mother's name on a ketubah as well.] Added to their names is also the appellation for a rabbinic scholar, Rav, or priestly or Levitic descent, kohen or Levi.

The Proposal. "Be thou my wife according to the law of Moses and of Israel" is the marriage proposal. The ketubah, following in time as it does the betrothal and its oral proposal formula, "You are hereby betrothed unto me according to the law of Moses and Israel," is written by witnesses testifying that the groom in fact proposed to the bride. The formula has remained intact for some 2,000 years. The Talmud considered variants, but this language of proposal endured.

The Groom Promised the Basic Support

"... and I will work for thee, honor, provide for, and support thee, in accordance with the practice of Jewish husbands, who work for their wives, honor, provide for and support them in truth."

Support. This is referred to as the alimentation clause. Providing support is elemental in marriage, and is considered so obvious that the Talmud makes no reference to it. But the phrase is so beautiful and appropriate that it appears in the ketubah not only once but twice, "honor, provide for, and support... honor, provide for, and support.... " Indeed, one authority described it as le'shufra di'she'tara (for the beauty of the contract).

Funds for the Wife, If and When the Marriage Terminates

"… and I will set aside for thee 200 silver zuz mohar due thee for thy maidenhood, which belong to thee according to the law of the Torah, and thy food, clothing, and other necessary benefits which a husband is obligated to provide; and I will live with thee in accordance with the requirements prescribed for each husband."

The Mohar. The funds, called mohar, are so important that this clause is called ikkar ketubah--the basic part of the ketubah, or simply the ketubah. Mohar is the cash gift the groom gives the bride, as Eliezer, Abraham's servant, gave "precious things" to Laban, Rebekah's father, and as Jacob gave seven years of service for the hand of Rachel. The great sage and the ketubah's most important author, Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach, decreed that this serve as protection for the bride rather than only a gift, and ordained that the funds were not given but set aside for the bride. During marriage, therefore, it was considered a debt which was paid only in case of death or divorce, and the mohar thus became a divorce or life insurance settlement rather than a mere marriage gift. This arrangement also enabled poor grooms to marry without any immediate monetary expenditure. The Talmud provides another reason, mishum china, to give the woman a secure financial position at the time of divorce so that she may remarry, and make the trials of marriage less poignant.

The Law of the Torah. There is a running dispute between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud as to whether this settlement, which all agree is historically of biblical times, is biblically or rabbinically mandated. Today we generally take mohar to be rabbinically commanded, yet because of the gravity of the marriage bond we persist in using, "which belong to thee according to the law of the Torah." We also include "200 silver zuz," the Tyrean coin used in biblical assessments, rather than the "current" coin used in rabbinically ordained payments.

Mohar for brides previously married is one-half the total and is recorded as rabbinically mandated.

Food, Clothing, and Conjugal Relations. The obligations are basic to marriage and are obligatory even without specific contractual condition. They are the rights (including conjugal relations) of the wife, and are accounted duties of the husband.

The Bride Accepted the Proposal

"… and this _______ maiden, consented and became his wife."

Willing Acceptance. The proposal having been made in the traditional formula, the witnesses now assert that the bride accepted with willing consent, and therefore "she became his wife." Ve'havat lih le'into is an Aramaic translation of Ruth 4:13, va-tehi lo le'ishah.

And She Brings a Dowry

"The dowry (nedunya) that she brought from her _______ house, in silver, gold, valuables, clothing, and household furnishings, all this _______ the said groom accepted in the sum of 100 silver pieces."

The Dowry. Nedunya (dowry), popularly referred to as naddan, is given the bride by her father for her use in the home she is about to build. This dowry includes the items listed plus any other valuables she may bring with her. In the Bible, Rachel and Leah are given servants Bilhah and Zilpah as dowry. It is the daughter's share of her parents' inheritance. The sons succeed their father, but the daughters leave him and therefore receive an equivalent in the form of dowry. The sages make it compulsory for a father to give his' daughter, as a start in married life, sufficient funds to buy a woman's wardrobe for one year.

The dowry is distinct from property or possessions that the bride owns and continues to own privately throughout marriage. Thus it serves as an inducement for suitors. The dowry is included in the ketubah, and is the property of the bride, technically "leased" to the groom for the duration of marriage. The bride's private property, called nikhsei melog, is given outright to the bride, the husband enjoying only the "fruit" (usufruct) during marriage. It is not part of the dowry and is not included in the ketubah.

The Groom Accepted. The ketubah originally listed all items in the dowry and tabulated the cost. In time, this was standardized under the general categories listed and estimated at a standard sum of 100 silver pieces, one half of the mohar that the groom provided the bride for use of the dowry, but which, in reality, comes today to very much more than the half mohar.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.