Sometime over 2,500 years ago the rabbis in charge of Jewish law decided that married women needed some way to count on a livelihood in case of divorce or widowhood. The ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, was developed as just such a protection, and persists today as a long-standing Jewish wedding custom.
Written in Aramaic (the colloquial and legal form of Hebrew at the time the ketubah was developed) and signed by two witnesses prior to the wedding, a traditional ketubah outlines the groom’s obligations to his bride, and specifies a certain amount of property that the groom brings the marriage, along with an equal amount of property from the bride’s family, that now belongs to the bride. From the Talmud we learn that the intention of this document was to make it “more difficult” for a man to “put aside” his wife, and to ensure that if he did leave her she would have resources to survive.
Judaism has a precept known as hiddur mitzvah (lit. “beautification of the commandment”) that says that if an object is required for ritual purposes it is a good thing to make it as beautiful as possible. As a result, it became customary for the ketubah (which is at its core not a romantic document at all, but a a dry, legal document — a prenuptial agreement) to be decorated as a work of art. Illuminated ketubot have been found from as early as 1100 C.E.
As Judaism evolved in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, and movements of modern Jews dispensed with halakha (Jewish law), the ketubah was one tradition that carried on, though in greatly modified form. Orthodox Jews still use the traditional Aramaic prenuptial agreement wording, which was largely codified in the Middle Ages, but modern variations have been developed by modern streams of Judaism, as well as adapted for use by interfaith, same sex, and even non-Jewish couples.
The Reform movement in Judaism eliminated many Jewish traditions, and some Reform rabbis dispensed with the ketubah altogether. But the idea of a wedding document that’s also a beautiful work of art holds enormous appeal, and after some decades of falling out of favor the ketubah has made an enormous comeback, starting slowly in the 70s, and veritably exploding in the 2000s! In fact, the ketubah is now so popular that it enjoys almost universal use by Jews of all stripes — from the most traditional Jews, to Reform, secular Humanist, and unaffiliated Jews — along with couples historically shut out from Jewish traditions. It’s now an easy matter for any couple to find an interfaith ketubah, a same sex ketubah, or even a gentile ketubah!
Whether traditional or modern, the ketubah remains one of the most beloved elements of a Jewish wedding ceremony.
©copyright Melissa Dinwiddie 2010