Writing Your Own Ketubah

A rabbi offers advice on writing your own Jewish wedding contract

One of the core elements of a traditional Jewish wedding is the Ketubah, the wedding contract, that is signed by both parties and sets out the framework for the life the couple is building together. Traditionally a Ketubah is a contract that lays out the groom’s obligation to the bride, a form that does not resonate with some modern couples. There are many wonderful modern texts available, but some couples prefer to write their own, creating a document that formalizes the vows and commitments they are making. While there are no rules for creating your own, in working with wedding couples, I find that it is helpful to have a framework to jump-start the process.

Traditional Elements
Even if you are writing your own Ketubah, you may consider bringing in the basic personalized elements of the traditional ketubah: the who, what, where, and when (we will get to the why in the continuation). The traditional form includes the following:
On the _______ day of the week, the _______day of the month of __________in the year ____________, here in  ________(location) the spouse/spouse ________________daughter/son/m’beit (from the house) of ___________ and ___________, and the spouse/spouse ______________ son/daughter/m’beit of _____________ and ________________ came together before family and friends to affirm their commitment to each other in marriage/ to affirm their partnership with each other.
In the traditional form, there is space for the Hebrew dates as well as the standard calendar date. Even if you are not including Hebrew text, you may consider including the Hebrew date. You can easily determine the date by checking online. Keep in mind that if your wedding ceremony is taking place after sundown, the Hebrew date will correspond to the following date on the secular calendar.
At the conclusion, it is traditional to include the signatures of the wedding couple, at least two witnesses and the officiants. Other possible signatories may include the entire wedding party, older married couples who serve as models of marriage for the wedding couple, and the parents of the wedding couple.

The Form
Given that you are writing your own Ketubah, there is no way that you MUST structure your document. That is both wonderful and challenging. Two possibilities that you can use as a starting point are vows or pronouncement. With vows, each partner can write what she or he pledges on this day. You can make it a formal pledge or statement, or simply say that each person declares or shares. It could take the form of a back and forth on different topics.

Quotes From ‘Eternal’ Sources
Eternal sources add a timeless element to a ketubah. Biblical quotes are one example of an eternal source but it is by no means the only kind, great poetry, love songs, movie dialogue can all fill this purpose. They remind us that there is a bigger context for the love that we celebrate on this day. They also have the potential to help frame the content of our document. My fiance (now husband) and I, for example, used a biblical quote from the Book of Ruth to frame ours. Ruth pledges her love to her mother-in-law Naomi by saying, “Where you go I will go, where you lay down, I will lay down; your people are my people, your God is my God.” Building on this, we wrote commitments about our shared future, building a home together, a vision of community and our spiritual lives. There are many wonderful biblical verses that lend themselves to a ketubah, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine” from Song of Solomon is one that is popular. But there are also many other sources and text that can add an eternal element to your personal ketubah.

Kinds of language to employ:
The traditional language of Ketubah is formal and legalistic. In choosing to write your own ketubah, you have a wide range of styles and approaches available to you. Keep in mind that this document is meant to be enduring, to capture a vision that is both of the moment but also extends beyond it. Take time to craft not only the ideas but the choice of words as well.  Words that do not get used in the every day, such as enduring, eternal, reverence, solemnly, faithfully may be just the thing you need. Humor and personal style can also play a role. The main thing is to find the words that will feel comfortable not just in the moment but for the long term. Proofreading and asking for help is greatly encouraged. I offer my couples help if they want to translate their personalized text into Hebrew, to connect the new content with the ancient language.

What are some of the things you value about the life you are building together?
While much of the content of a ketubah looks forward to your hopes for the future, this is also an opportunity to come together and give voice to the values you share and serve as the foundation for your relationship. Naming those values and the shape they take can be abstract but it can also be rooted in personal stories, family experiences, and community commitments. Spell out your values with examples or commitments, ie. May your dedication to caring for animals always lead our family to acts of kindness and generosity or Just as today we celebrate with family and friends, the home that we build will always be open to others that it may be a gathering place in times of joy and sadness.

What are Your Hopes for the Future?
A wedding, like all ritual, captures a liminal moment. It looks back on the majesty of finding a partner and celebrating the miracle of that love and it looks forward to the potential of the lives that have yet to be lived. Spelling out your hopes for the future is a great way to capture the potential. Be thoughtful about how specific you want to be. Not all your plans will unfold exactly as you envision them, consider as you write how you may feel if life deviates from the original, will the vision of every year at Disney taunt you if circumstances change and it is no longer possible? If so, then consider writing that you look forward to adventures and always having a special place for Disney in your relationship. Broader language will leave more wiggle room. But if the commitment to having a house with dogs feel so fundamental that you could not live without it, leave it in.

How will you navigate difficult times?
The focus of a wedding should be primarily positive and filled with anticipation of good times. But even the most enduring relationships will face challenges, what commitments do you want to make to each other about the less than perfect moments and how you will negotiate your way forward.

What are the communities to which you belong and to whom you hold yourself accountable?
Weddings are never just between two people. Even a small wedding brings in a third party as a witness to the love and commitment being made. Larger weddings involve family and friends because relationships do not exist in a vacuum. So as you write consider the people and communities of which you see yourselves being part. This may include spiritual commitments that go beyond yourselves.

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