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Posted by Yevgeni Kuritski on August 19, 2014
Marriage is an important element both in the life of an individual, but also for the society at large, being also a highly significant tradition which helped advance the development of the latter. In some particular cultures, marriage has an even more enhanced role and it’s usually surrounded by its own aura. This is the case of Judaism, where marriage is more than a mere contract, but rather a bond directed by God, consisting of the union between man and woman, in an effort not only to produce children (which in Judaism appears to be a commandment present in Genesis 1.28), but also to create a single, unique soul (in Jewish tradition, a man is incomplete in the absence of a wife) which will afterwards be in direct spiritual connection with God. This is the case of the traditional marriage. However, parts of Judaism, such as the Reconstructionists, the Reformists and the Conservatives who recognize the same-sex marriages, regard marriage more as a bond between the persons of the couple.
While other cultures have pre-marital agreements called pre-nuptial contracts, in the Jewish tradition the bride and groom will also enter into a pre-marital agreement which is called a “Ketubah”. Unlike contemporary pre-marital agreements, which regulate more economic and financial aspects of the possessions of the future couple, the Ketubah is focused on highlighting the rights and responsibilities the husband has to his future wife. On account of this, there is no legal value attached to the Ketubah.
The tradition of entering a Ketubah before marriage goes back to the ancient times, when it was designed to regulate in fact a financial aspect. In those times, it was customary for the future husband to pay the traditional mohar (price) to either his wife or her family before getting married. However, since many men could not pay the established amount of money before the marriage, the rabbis decided to create the Ketubah as a form of ensuring that the young men could marry even without paying the mohar before the marriage, but they would not be exempt from it, as by the signing of the Ketubah they committed to eventually paying the mohar, when they had collected the money. Thus, the Ketubah served as a form of insurance for the woman, that in case of death of the husband or divorce, she would be left in a stable financial state. Also, the Ketubah worked as a form of protection against divorce, as men were aware that upon divorce they would have to pay the mohar to their wives.
The contents of the Ketubah are regulated by the Halakha (the Jewish law) and establishes the main duties of a husband to his wife, consisting of a pledge to provide her with clothing, food and intimate relations, as well as with a specifically decided sum of money in the event of a divorce. Thus, it appears that even nowadays, the wife is the one protected by the Ketubah. In the case of the Conservative Jews, the Ketubah also includes the so –called Lieberman clause stating that in the event of a divorce it will be dealt with by a modern rabbi court, so as to have a more balanced approach of the situation.
Apart from its importance in maintaining the tradition, the Ketubah is also a piece of ceremonial art with particular designs and motifs. According to the hiddur mitzvah tradition, all ceremonial objects need to be embellished to the largest extent, which justifies for the art involved in the drafting of a Ketubah.
The Ketubot (this is the plural for Ketubah) are usually embellished with motifs and styles which are particular to the region where they belong. In the 19th century they would be designed by using the illumination technique as well as a set of decorations consisting of floral motifs, birds and other ornaments that were customarily used on Judaic objects. Nowadays, such illuminated Ketubot have become the object of auctions and are often stored in private art collections.
It is traditional to write these documents in Aramaic and not Hebrew - the Aramaic was the language spoken at the time when the Ketubah was established as a traditional document. However, it is common to attach a Hebrew translation to the Aramaic version, or to simply write the Ketubah in Hebrew, as is the case of the non-Orthodox Jews. There is also the possibility to have the Ketubah written in Aramaic and have attached an English or any other language translation.
Contemporary Ketubot differ based on the type of the community. Thus, there are Orthodox-text Ketubot, Conservative-text Ketubot, Interfaith-Ketubot and even same-sex-text Ketubot.
The signing of a Ketubah is accompanied by an entire tradition to be performed. In the traditional wedding ceremony, the signing needs to be witnessed by two people, who are not allowed to be blood-relatives to neither the bride, nor the groom. As far as the Orthodox Jews are concerned, women are not allowed to be witnesses. After the signing, the text is read out-loud under the chuppah and the listening of the text is considered an honor by those present. Afterwards, the text is offered to the bride who then becomes the keeper of the Ketubah.
Being a piece of Judaica art entitles the couple to hang the richly adorned Ketubah on the walls of their home, as a daily reminder of the vows and commitment they entered into upon marriage. However, due to the details contained in the text, it is best to shield it from the eyes of the every-day visitor. Some Ketubot might refer to the whether the bride was a virgin upon marriage, or offer details of the contributions brought by the husbands to the newly-established family, as well as the exact sum owed as the mohar (which, in the Ashkenazi communities is a pre-established one for all types of weddings).
Taking everything into consideration, the Jewish wedding Ketubah is both a pre-marital contract regulating the responsibilities of the man towards his wife, as well as protecting financially the wife in case of a divorce, but also a piece of Jewish art.