Scenes From a Marriage Contract

Ketubah Splendor at the Jewish Museum

By Malka Percal

Published March 29, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The current exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum, “The Art of Matrimony: Thirty Splendid Marriage Contracts from the Jewish Theological Seminary Library,” is, essentially, a room full of contracts. True, they are beautifully decorated, restored and mounted. But their raison d’être is as legal documents — each stipulating the conditions of a marriage.

Jewish law states that a couple may not cohabit without a ketubah, the official Jewish marriage document, whose basic Aramaic text has remained essentially unchanged for two millennia. Each document states the names of the bride and groom and their respective fathers, the date of marriage and the city in which the event took place, the bride’s dowry and other details — providing a clear window onto the lives and circumstances of Jews from Bordeaux to Baghdad and from the 12th century to the 21st.

Intricate: A marriage contract created  for a couple in New York in 1863 by artist and calligrapher Zemah Davidsohn uses ink and watercolor on paper.
courtesy of The Jewish Theological Seminary
Intricate: A marriage contract created for a couple in New York in 1863 by artist and calligrapher Zemah Davidsohn uses ink and watercolor on paper.

The ketubah, which is not mentioned in the Bible but rather in the Mishnah, is “one of the most socially progressive enactments that rabbis made for women, one of the most socially progressive enactments ever for Jewish women,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Prior to the rabbinic formulation of the ketubah (meaning “that which is written”), grooms were required to pay the bride’s father at the time of the wedding. This not only made it difficult for grooms to afford marriage or purchase a dwelling; the prepaid settlement also made it easier for a man to divorce his wife, since it would cost him nothing more.

Under the terms of the ketubah, the groom agrees to support his bride during the marriage and to settle payment, including the return of her entire dowry, on her in case of his death or the dissolution of the marriage. Hauptman said that, as a result, men were less likely to end the marriage “if the wife burned the soup.” The ketubah also ensures that widows will not be left penniless or be thrown out of their homes by the heirs — an important innovation at a time when women had few options by which to support themselves. Indeed, Hauptman said, the recommended dowry was 10% of the father’s estate for each daughter, who was otherwise not allowed to inherit.

The earliest ketubah in the exhibition is from the Cairo Genizah and dates from the 12th century. This fragment in red, black and gold ink on parchment — discovered in the JTS archive only three years ago by exhibition curator Sharon L. Mintz — is a preamble of celebratory verses matching those found in a ketubah from Sana’a, Yemen, 500 years later.

Other rarities include a holiday ketubah from Tetouan, Morocco, that was displayed and read aloud on Shavuot, in which the groom is the Nation of Israel and the bride is the Torah. A printed 1930 New York City ketubah from the Jewish National Fund includes Zionist imagery and a tear-off, numbered coupon so that the couple could make a wedding contribution to the fund. The exhibit also includes custom-made ketubot by artists Ben Shahn and Zemah Davidsohn, whose 1863 contract shows two hands clasped in a handshake and two clocks with the hands at 6:13. (The number of commandments is 613).

Mintz and others at JTS chose to display 30 contracts across a wide geographical swath from the library’s 600 ketubot. The restoration process was completed over a two-year period. As the practice of ketubah decoration is traditionally Sephardic, the exhibit also features exquisitely embellished ketubot from Italy, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jerusalem, Greece, France, The Netherlands, Yemen, India, Syria and Turkey, and a Karaite ketubah from Ukraine.

While a resurgence of Jewish imagery in art since the 1970s has produced an explosion of handmade and decorated ketubot that are often displayed at home, some communities, including the Chabad Hasidim, keep to the traditional Ashkenazi practice of using a plain printed ketubah. “The Chabad tradition is to decorate the marriage rather than the ketubah,” said Rabbi Joseph Eisenbach of Litchfield, Conn.

The decorated ketubot on display show not only Jewish migratory patterns, but also local influences. A 1680 ketubah from Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) for a Sephardic bride and groom shows a Venetian decoration style, Jews being prominent in trade with the city’s rulers, Venice and then Constantinople. In 18th-century Italy, rabbis imposed sumptuary laws on ketubah embellishment to inhibit both tax collectors’ interest and public envy, Mintz said. In response to the spending limits, families would hand down marriage contracts, excising the text and reusing the border.

Couples today can order ketubot online and consult with artists to create their own imagery. Contemporary New York artist David Wander, who is not included in the exhibition, has designed ketubot incorporating a couple’s personal interests. For one couple, he translated tikkun olam, repair of the world, into Chinese.

Artist Deborah Ugoretz, also not a part of the exhibit, makes both papercut and painted ketubot. She consults with a couple to discuss their feelings about each other and the marriage they are about to begin. “It’s not like picking a china pattern; they’re really creating an heirloom for their family,” she said.

Hauptman encourages couples to be creative with their ketubot. She also suggests that couples add the Lieberman clause, created in 1953 by Saul Lieberman, a Conservative rabbi, either in the ketubah or as a separate document. The clause, and other halachic prenuptial agreements, prevents the wife from becoming an agunah, a woman whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce.

The contemporary ketubot in the JTS collection were all donated by divorced couples. Not wanting to display these documents, Mintz commissioned artist Archie Granot to design a sumptuous ketubah for the collection. Included in the current exhibit, it is based on the Madaba Map from Jordan, with Jerusalem at its center, and has a papercut border of verses by Jerusalem poets Elsie Lasker-Schüler and Zelda Mishkovsky.

Jerusalem, though, is just one theme of the many — including cherubim, lions, astrological symbols and heraldic family crests — used to decorate the documents on display. Just as we divine from these ketubot clues about once-flourishing Jewish communities, so future generations may peruse ours.

“The Art of Matrimony” will run through June 26.

Malka Percal writes about the arts and Jewish culture.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.