Talmud pages

Ketubot 51

No ketubah? No problem.

As we have seen, Tractate Ketubot is concerned largely with the particulars of the marriage contract stipulating the amount of money to which a woman is entitled in case of divorce or her husband’s death. While the requirement for a husband to write his wife a get (divorce document) is outlined in the Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1), the same is not true for a ketubah. So what happens if a couple gets married without one? How can the wife prove that she is due anything at all if they divorce or she becomes a widow?

On today’s daf, a mishnah comes to the rescue with clear support for a woman who gets married without a written contract.

If a husband did not write a marriage contract for his wife, a virgin collects 200 dinars and a widow 100 dinars (upon divorce or the husband’s death), because it is a stipulation of the court.

No ketubah, no problem, says the mishnah. Even without a written contract, the rabbis stipulate that virgins are due 200 dinars and widows 100 dinars. In order to underscore the stipulation, the Gemara follows with a citation from Rabbi Meir that we will see expanded upon in just a few days’ time, on Ketubot 54:

Anyone who decreases to a virgin from 200 dinars, or to a widow from 100 dinars (and proceeds to live with his wife), this is licentious sexual intercourse.

According to Rabbi Meir, not only is the amount a bride is due settled even without a written document, but if a husband short-changes his wife by guaranteeing less than what the court has determined, it lowers the status of the sexual act from marital relations to fornication. 

The husband also can’t lower the amount by substituting a field of lesser value for the money she is owed. The next clause in the mishnah teaches this:

If he wrote (in her marriage contract) “a field worth 100 dinars instead of the 200 dinars” and he did not write for her “all property I have is a guarantee for your marriage contract,” he is obligated (to pay the full 200 dinars) as it is a stipulation of the court.

In brief, even if both parties consent to exchange a field of lesser value for the standard 200 dinars, that decision is invalid because the amount is set by the court. And that remains true today. While researching this piece, I checked my own ketubah, presented to me in New Jersey in 1988. Sure enough, that’s the amount cited.

Why would the Talmud stand so firmly on this amount that it continues to be the standard today, regardless of whether it’s written down or not?

To consider that question, think about the last contract you signed. Many of those documents require signatures in several places to indicate that you accept the stipulations in the contract. But if I asked you right now to recall the exact amount of each portion of that contract, could you do it? 

Now consider the talmudic-era bride. Maybe she could read, but unless she was the daughter of a rabbi, probably not. And not only that, she might not even be old enough to comprehend. Remember the three-year-old betrothed in Tractate Yevamot? We also can’t assume that the groom could read, since he might not have grown up in a privileged setting that allowed him to put aside work to study. So it’s possible that neither the couple nor their parents would be capable of writing (or reading) a contract, and might be counting on a verbal agreement to seal the deal instead. And even if all goes well and both bride and groom live to old age, who will remember — or be able to prove — the stipulations of a verbal contract?

This was likely a pretty common scenario for non-rabbinic families. So the rabbis in their wisdom mandated the bride price, with or without a written ketubah: 200 dinars for a virgin, and 100 for a widow. Having done so, no one can argue that is what she is owed. 

Read all of Ketubot 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 26th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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