Welcome to Tractate Ketubot, all about the laws of Jewish marriage. From the Talmud’s perspective, marriage is a legal institution that binds a woman to her husband, financially and sexually, though a woman may retain property that does not belong to her husband. The husband, in turn, has obligations toward his wife, including the provision of food and clothing as well as conjugal rights (see Exodus 21:10). His financial care of her extends even after the marriage ends in death or divorce.
The rabbis required that these and other legal arrangements of a marriage be inscribed and witnessed in a document called a ketubah. Along with the huppah and the breaking of the glass, the ketubah is today one of most recognized symbols at a Jewish wedding, and for hundreds of years now ketubot have often been richly designed works of art to adorn the couple’s home. Fundamentally, however, ketubot are legal documents and would work just as well if drawn up on a lined notepad or lawyer’s stationery.
Beyond the terms of the ketubah, this tractate is also concerned with the innumerable legal disputes that can arise between two people tied by such a sweeping and intimate contract, one which reconfigures both their lives in fundamental ways. As today’s opening mishnah reminds us, that can happen even in the first hours of a marriage:
A virgin is married on Wednesday and a widow on Thursday, because twice a week courts convene in the towns, on Monday and Thursday, so if the husband has a virginity claim he can rise early and go to court.
Virgin brides commanded a higher ketubah payment than non-virgins. If, upon bedding a presumed virgin bride on a Wednesday night, the groom found reason to suspect her virginity, he could then leap out of the marital bed early Thursday morning and run to court, which was reliably in session that day.
Since the mishnah explicitly reminds us that courts convene twice per week, the Gemara reasonably asks: Why not marry a virgin on Sunday? (Since, obviously, this would make it possible to sue her on Monday.) Given the joyless legal discussion we’ve seen so far, the answer is surprisingly festive:
The sages were assiduous in seeing to the well-being of Jewish women, so that the groom would exert himself in arranging the wedding feast for three days: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday — and on Wednesday, he marries her.
Sunday is preceded by Shabbat, a day on which halakhic restrictions on many forms of labor would make it difficult to arrange a wedding feast. But Wednesday is preceded by three weekdays, including a market day (Monday) — an optimal window to plan a proper bash. Wednesday was therefore the preferred day to marry a virgin so that one could properly revel at the wedding feast and still expediently take the bride to court (if necessary, of course).
These opening lines of Ketubot should clue us in that this is not a romantic tractate. In antiquity, marriage was understood to be foremost a legal arrangement whose primary purpose was to give financial protection to a woman and enable a man to grow his household. Furthermore, the Talmud is a legal document and so we should not expect it to wax poetic about romantic love like, say, the Song of Songs.
At the same time, between the finely parsed and often wrenching legal disagreements that populate the next 111 pages we can detect a rabbinic notion that marriage has a transcendent quality. The rabbis called the relationship between a husband and wife kiddushin —sanctified — a word that evokes a powerful metaphor: Just as God chose Israel to be a goy kadosh, a holy nation (see Exodus 19:6 and Deuteronomy 7:6), a husband renders his wife holy to him through the act of marriage. The idea that Jewish marriage mirrors the sacred relationship between God and the people Israel, a relationship that (no exaggeration) changed the world, casts marriage in a far more significant light than the notion that it amounts only to a set of financial and sexual agreements.
Then again, things haven’t always gone well in the course of the (literally) epic relationship between God and Israel, including in the first few hours. The people famously strayed almost immediately after the marriage ceremony (i.e. revelation) at Sinai by building a Golden Calf and worshiping it. God responded by nearly destroying them in anger (Exodus 32). We should not be surprised, therefore, that where there are marriages there are legal challenges. And where there are legal challenges, the Talmud eagerly dives in — as do we.
Read all of Ketubot 2 on Sefaria.