The Ketubah Is The Jewish Wedding Contract

by: Michael Kabel

The Jewish faith places an extraordinary importance on the ritual of marriage. So much so, that many of the details and customs of the Jewish marriage ceremony date back thousands of years, and commemorate the twelve tribes' ancient heritage. One of the most important traditions is the ketubah, or marriage contract.

The Ketubah during the Jewish wedding ceremony.

The word ketubahmeans "it is written." The contract is a very important part of any new marriage, as it outlines the rights and responsibilities of both persons entering the agreement. For all practical purposes, it's a prenuptial agreement between the bride and groom.

And so there are no misunderstandings, the ketubah is read aloud in both Aramaic and English during the wedding. Two witnesses must sign the contract before the ceremony to make it official. Afterwards, the groom presents the bride with the ketubah as an official act.

Following the wedding celebrations, it's not unusual for a couple to hang the contract in their home, for both decoration and to demonstrate their loyalty to its customs. It's a beautifully and often ornately decorated object, often highlighting the couple's heritage and ancestry.

The ketubah is thousands of years old.

The origins of the ketubah date back to ancient (and decidedly less enlightened) times, when women were considered the property of the men. Just the same, it's one of the earliest documents outlining a woman's rights.

During the events of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE, when the tribes of Israel were forced to leave Judah, the ketubah was meant to protect women's rights and dignity. The contract also spelled out the groom's obligations to his wife and to the marriage, along with specifying what inheritance or alimony the wife would receive in the event of divorce or the groom's death. Divorce was made very expensive for the groom, as a practical means of keeping families together.

The ketubah changed over time.

As with all things, the ketubah changed over time. A basic text was agreed upon during the Middle Ages, and to this day the original Aramaic version is the only one recognized by the nation of Israel. Most Orthodox and conservative Jews still follow the original ketubah wording.

One change of note: the Jewish conservative movement has adapted text that makes the contract more mutually beneficial. For example, a special clause stipulates that the groom will agree to obtain a divorce decree known as a get if the marriage ends badly. This will allow the wife to remarry in a Jewish ceremony. Conservative Jews also require the ketubah be signed by the rabbi, the groom, and two male, Jewish witnesses who are not related to either the groom or bride. By way of comparison, for some Reform ceremonies only the signature of the bride and groom is sufficient.

Liberal and reform Jews have been quicker to modify the ketubah's text and significance. Some choose to incorporate new text into the surviving language, and some have even chosen to write completely new text to replace the old. The ketubah has become in those cases much more like a statement of purpose or an agreement of loyalty than a binding legal document.