What Is A Ketubah and Where Did It Come From?

The Ketubah is a staple in the Jewish wedding ceremony but many couples don’t even know what it is! Here is the complete historical background of what a ketubah is, why it exists, and what it is today.

Authorized reproductions of Ketubahs culled from the Jewish Museum's permanent collection.
Authorized reproductions of Ketubahs culled from the Jewish Museum’s permanent collection with Ketubah.com.

The History
The traditional and historical ketubah is a binding legal document, which catalogs a husband’s obligations to his wife, and makes provisions for her protection in the event of divorce or her husband’s death. It is really the religious equivalent to the contemporary pre-nuptial agreement of secular civil law.

Elements of the ketubah can be traced back to Biblical times. During that period, when a man consented to his daughter’s engagement he was thereby facing the impending departure of a contributing member of his household and was viewed as requiring compensation for this loss. Thus, the groom’s family made a financial settlement, called a mohar, to the bride’s family as part of the engagement agreement. In addition, the groom would give wedding presents – mattan – to his bride.

Senigallia (Italy), 1837 Ketubah Couple
From The Modern Jewish Wedding featuring Senigallia (Italy), 1837 Ketubah

In the post-Biblical era, as economic conditions changed, the financial obligations to compensate a bride and her family at the time of marriage proved onerous and made it difficult for young men without means to wed. Bride’s families began offering dowries to potential spouses in response. Moreover, the mohar was modified so that it was no longer a sum of money given directly to the bride’s father, but rather took the form of a mortgage or lien on the husband’s property, which he would be committed to paying out in the event of divorce, or which his estate would owe in the event of his death. The ketubah thus emerged as a way of documenting and certifying these arrangements, and ensuring that a woman had a legal record of them for her own security. The ketubah, in short, assured women of their rights and recourses in the face of the loss of their marriage.

The earliest extant ketubah dates from circa 440 B.C.E. found in Egypt and written on papyrus. This Aramaic document  recorded the amount of the settlement the groom paid to the father of the bride and also noted the amount each family contributed to the dowry. The ketubah names the wife as beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

Elements of the ketubah can be traced back to Biblical times.

The ketubah text was first formalized about three hundred years later in the 1st century B.C.E. by the Sanhedrin (the presiding Judaic legislative body at the time); its authorship is attributed mainly to Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach. Despite undergoing several modifications since then, the ketubah text that has come down to us today closely resembles the one codified two thousand years ago. It is written in Aramaic, the language of legal and technical matters at the time, and an entire tractate of the Talmud is devoted to its intricacies.

What Is Written In The Ketubah?

From United With Love featuring Gefen Papercut - Winter Ketubah
From United With Love featuring Gefen Papercut – Winter Ketubah

The ketubah’s multiple sections record the particulars of the wedding (date, names of bride and groom, etc.) and enumerate the groom’s obligations – financial and conjugal – to his bride.

Traditionally, the ketubah is not, as many people assume, a contract between husband and wife – neither, in fact, are required to sign the document. It is signed, rather, by two witnesses, who verify that the requisite conditions mentioned have been met by the groom. Another common misconception about the ketubah is that it in some way indicates that a man has purchased his wife, that it is some sort of transfer of property akin to a deed on a piece of land. This is not at all accurate – according to Jewish law there is no such relation of ownership between a husband and wife. The ketubah rather outlines the financial conditions that the groom must satisfy if the couple is to be permitted to undergo the wedding ceremony and become legally married.

What The Ketubah Is Today

From Smashing The Glass featuring Trees Growing Together Ketubah
From Smashing The Glass featuring Trees Growing Together Ketubah

Couples have continued to keep the tradition of a ketubah as an essential part of their Jewish wedding ceremony. Today, many artists and companies offer Ketubahs with texts that that speak to couples on a personal level in English. With the popularity of interfaith marriages and same sex weddings, couples can find ketubahs that fit their choices. Many Interfaith couples will include multiple languages such as Spanish or Chinese to include the other family. At times couples  choose to write their own text which can include vows they are making to one another and poetry they love.

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