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Is the ketubah a legal document?

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The ketubah is more valuable than you think

It is a misconception that the ketubah is an anachronism. It is often thought of as a tradition that refers to a bygone era. This is very far from the truth. The ketubah is one of the basic requirements for a Jewish wedding, along with the chuppah and the ring. It is more important, in fact, to have a ketubah than it is to have an officiant.

This is because the ketubah is a legal document that breaks down and specifies the terms of the marriage. As such is it admissible in court. The ketubah is a very real legal document and should be treated with appropriate respect. In Israel proper, the ketubah is in no uncertain terms a legal contract. Additionally, one would be wrong to assume that it is legally invalid outside of Israel.

Setting a precedent in 1983, the New York court of appeals ruled that orthodox and conservative ketubot are legal binding civil contracts and are admissible in court. At the time, judge Sol Wachtler made the decision that the ketubah is a contract like any other and not simply bound by religion or tradition. He said,

”This agreement – the ketubah -should ordinarily be entitled to no less dignity than any other civic contract to submit a dispute to a nonjudicial forum, so long as its enforcement violates neither the law nor the public policy of this state…The present case can be decided solely upon the application of neutral principles of contract law, without reference to any religious principle”

Among the terms specified in a ketubah is the monetary amount of alimony the groom pledges to his wife. In the vast majority of ketubot, this amount is codified as being a flat 200 zuz. In the talmud we learn that 1 zuz is 3.5 grams of pure silver. Back when the talmud was written, silver was worth a lot more than it is today. If we were to take the modern price of silver, 200 zuzim would come out to roughly $500. Not very much money. In Israel, they get around this by replacing the zuz with an actual monetary value in shekels.

Since the ketubah is read out loud in front of the community at the wedding, many men put in higher amounts. This is called “ketubah inflation” and has been going on for a long time in communities around the world.

This causes a problem when the groom can’t afford to pay the amount he pledged. A very common amount written into the ketubah is 555,555 (or hamsa hamsa hamsa), mainly in Sephardic communities  because it is regarded as a lucky number.  Depending on the community, this figure can be in shekels or it can be in dollars. In many cases, the amounts become astronomical going upwards of 18 million shekels (chai), which still translates to around five million dollars. Grooms do this as a gesture without thinking about the repercussions.

Unfortunately, in such cases, the ketubah is deemed nullified because the amount written in was not realistic. This is a problem that has been going on for centuries. Rabbi Shaul Even Danan, A beit din judge in Morocco from two hundred years ago is quoted as saying,

“The unwanted addition to custom of the inflated ketubot, which has spread through our lands reaching the millions…paupers without so much as a slice of bread to their name cannot be trusted to pay even a fraction of what they commit to paying”

This has prompted local rabbinical courts in Israel to petition the rabbanut to impose a cap on the amount one can write into the ketubah. The cap is suggested at 1 million shekel. And in many local communities such a cap is already enforced.

All of this refers to orthodox and conservative ketubot, which are very clearly written as contracts. Modern ketubot, such as reform or other streams, have done away with the majority of legalese and opt instead to treat the ketubah as an emotional and spiritual contract. This leaves out any mention of money or damages. But it is still an agreement that the marrying couple takes upon themselves.

The ketubah is a legal document and it deserves the appropriate level of respect. It marks the beginning of a couple’s life together and as such is an object of beauty to be cherished for a lifetime.