What is a ketubah?
A ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, and is a traditional part of every Jewish wedding ceremony. In its most traditional form, the ketubah is a legal document, written in Aramaic (the colloquial version of Hebrew, and the language that Jesus would have spoken; Hebrew being the language reserved for the priestly class), and signed by two witnesses to attest that the groom “acquired” the bride and agreed to support her. It is not a contract between the bride and groom, but is actually given to the bride as her “proof” and guarantee of her rights in the marriage. Although this may seem sexist now, for its time it was considered quite an advance for the rights of women, because it protected wives from being left penniless should their husbands die or decide to divorce them.
Nowadays, although the Orthodox community still uses the same Aramaic text (or very close variations thereof) that was originally
used over two thousand years ago, many couples choose to use more progressive, poetic texts. Ultimately the choice of text is determined by whomever is officiating at the ceremony: an Orthodox rabbi will require the traditional Aramaic text (though he may allow additional text), but rabbis of other streams of Judaism may be more flexible about text choice, or they may have different requirements.
The Lieberman Clause: the Ketubah and Divorce
Conservative rabbis will usually require that the ketubah includes a clause called the Lieberman Clause. If you order a ketubah with the “Conservative Text,” or “Conservative with Lieberman Clause,” or “Conservative + Lieberman,” your ketubah will come with the traditional Aramaic wording, PLUS this additional clause, which was written in the 1950s and named after Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman. The Lieberman Clause basically says that if the couple ever gets a civil divorce and the husband refuses to give the wife a get (a Jewish writ of divorce), both husband and wife are to appear before a Bet Din (rabbinic court), which could (and usually would) order the man to give his wife a get.
The Lieberman Clause was developed by the Conservative Movement as an attempt to solve the problem of agunot, (literally “chained women”), whose husbands refuse to give them a get. Without a get, a Jewish woman is forbidden from remarrying.
Check with your officiant about the text!
In my many years of making ketubot, I have encountered a wide variety of requirements and proscriptions for ketubah texts, not always in keeping with my expectations! For this reason, I always strongly encourage my clients to check with their officiant before ordering the ketubah! Most Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal and unaffiliated rabbis are very flexible about the ketubah texts they will allow… but not always. I’ve had Reform rabbis who required the traditional Aramaic text, and at the other end of the spectrum I had an interfaith couple whose Reform rabbi who would not allow any Hebrew at all on the ketubah. Although it hasn’t happened with my clients, because I pretty much insist they check with their rabbi first, I’ve heard horror stories of couples not being allowed to use their beautiful ketubah at the wedding, because the rabbi was uncomfortable with the wording, or even with the layout of the text. Nobody wants this kind of surprise at their wedding, so always check first! Since I create a proof of every personalized ketubah before I print it, my clients have an opportunity to show the ketubah to their rabbi before it has even been created, and any changes or corrections are easily made well in advance, so that everything is perfect at the wedding.
How is the ketubah used during the wedding?
The ketubah is usually signed at a separate ceremony right before the chuppah ceremony. Typically this ceremony is attended only
by immediate family and close friends, or even just the couple, rabbi, and witnesses. Traditionally the witnesses must be adult Jewish males, unrelated by blood to either the bride or the groom. Some couples have additional witnesses – for example, more progressive couples may have two women witnesses in addition to two men, to adhere to halakha while also being more egalitarian. Again, check with your rabbi, as s/he is the final arbiter of what is allowed at your wedding.
Under the Chuppah and Afterwards
The ketubah is commonly (though not always) read underneath the chuppah by the rabbi, as part of the wedding ceremony. It is frequently a beautiful work of art, and a centerpiece of the wedding, held up for all the guests to see, and then displayed on an easel or table during the reception. Many of my clients choose to theme their entire wedding around their ketubah, with a matching chuppah (wedding canopy), invitations, program covers, place cards, menus and thank you cards.
After the wedding, the ketubah is usually framed and hung in a prominent place in the couple’s home. One of the few things from your wedding that actually endures beyond the day itself, it is a lasting reminder of your love and commitment, and of your special day.
The Baal Shem Tov said that if a couple had a fight, they should read the ketubah out loud to each other, to help them remember their wedding day, when they joined together as a couple, surrounded by love and the good wishes of their friends and family.
Can non-Jewish couples have a ketubah?
I’m frequently asked by non-Jewish couples if they can have a ketubah, and the answer is YES, absolutely! My most popular ketubah texts are for interfaith couples, but I also create ketubot (or ketubah-like-documents) for couples from all backgrounds. The Quaker wedding certificate format, in which everyone at the wedding signs as a witness, is very popular (whether or not the couple, or the ceremony, is actually Quaker; some Jewish and interfaith couples choose to use this format as well), and some couples choose to have their wedding vows memorialized as a work of fine art. Others compose a special text, separate from their vows, to use on their certificate/ketubah-like-document. And still others use marriage license-like wording. As with Jewish ketubot, anything goes, as long as your officiant gives you the go-ahead!
I hope this is helpful! Please email with any questions.