What is a Ketubah?

Image: Ketubah by Miriam Karp. Two trees join to form a chuppah under which the text of the ketubah is written. Photo by Ruth Adar, all rights reserved.

A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract. Signing it and witnessing it is an essential part of a Jewish wedding. In its traditional formulation, it is a one-way contract listing the responsibilities of a Jewish husband to his wife. The husband commits to providing food, clothing, and conjugal relations to his wife, and should he at some future time divorce her, he commits to paying her a specified amount of cash. There have to be at least two qualified witnesses.

Originally, the ketubah was an effort to protect both groom and bride. There is no ketubah mentioned in the Torah. In Biblical Judaism, the groom had to pay a mohar, a dowry, for the wife; this money was to be held for her security in case of death or divorce. The rabbis saw that young men delayed marrying, because it took time to raise the mohar funds, so they devised the ketubah, which committed the groom to future payments in the event of divorce but no payment at the time of marriage. That way,  a young man could marry before he got old.

It was even more a protection for the bride. A Jewish divorce must be initiated by the husband, and to carry it out, he has to give his wife a get, a bill of divorce. That activates her claim for support in the ketubah, so he know that if he divorces her, he would owe her support. In ancient times, a woman who had been married and cast aside had no rights to her children and very few options other than starving. With the ketubah, the woman had enforceable rights.

(Problems have arisen in modern times about husbands getting a civil divorce and then refusing to grant a get to the wife, but that’s a separate subject for another time. See agunot.)

For the text of the traditional Aramaic ketubah, and an explanation of its details, see The Ketubah Text at MyJewishLearning.com.

The traditional text does not meet the needs of some modern Jews. Rabbi Rachel Adler, in her book Engendering Judaism, proposed a new text for the ketubah. Instead of the traditional text, which outlines the obligations of the husband only, her new document was modeled on a business partnership between equals. She calls this document a brit ahuvim, a lovers’ covenant. A copy of that text is available on ritualwell.org.

Many couples choose alternate texts, and for some couples, the process of writing their own ketubah, their own marriage agreement, is a helpful prelude to the very serious step of marriage.

Ketubot (the plural form) are often embellished with artwork, and have become a major vehicle for Jewish artistic expression. The ketubah in the picture is that belonging to me and my wife.

Ketubah
Detail from the ketubah pictured above. Artwork and calligraphy by Miriam Karp. The text is based on the brit ahuvim with some changes by the couple.
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