What is a Ketubah? About an Ancient Tradition

Ancient Ketubah - 1700s Venice

What is a Ketubah?

A short history of the tradition

Illustrated Ketubah From 1700s Venice
Illustrated Ketubah From 1700s Venice

The ketubah is one of three requirements for a Jewish wedding. The other two being the ring and the chuppah. Simply put it is a marriage contract. To put it another way, the traditional ketubah is not merely a contract of marriage, it is a prenuptial agreement. It doesn’t sound very romantic today, but as a development in civil rights, it was groundbreaking.  It was one of the first attempts in history to grant women their rights in marriage.

The ketubah tradition is approximately 2000 years old and for much of that time, it has been relatively unchanged. Still today, the text is in Aramaic, the vernacular language spoken in the land of Israel thousands of years ago. Aramaic might sound exotic, but it’s actually very similar to Hebrew.

Although the traditional Aramaic ketubah has been around for a long time and is still the standard used in traditional weddings, today’s ketubahs take many forms. From the conservative Lieberman clause all the way to egalitarian, same-sex, interfaith, and even completely secular texts. Modern couples have a vast variety of options to find a ketubah that suits their particular value system.

One thing that remains unchanged is that ketubahs are commonly made as beautiful works of art that the married couple displays on a wall to honor and remember their commitment to one another.

So What’s In a Ketubah?

It depends. If we’re talking about the traditional Aramaic text, what it boils down to is the description of a unilateral agreement wherein the bride is guaranteed to be taken care of, as well as a specific sum of money (in the ancient currency of zuzim) in the case of a divorce. It is not a contract as you would think of it today, between two parties. As such it is not signed by the bride and groom. Rather it is more like a notarized declaration in which two witnesses sign a document stating that they were present while the groom promised his bride what he will provide for her in marriage and after. This is the standard way a contract was signed two thousand years ago, and it is still honored today by Jews all over the world.

It might sound unromantic, but it is actually a very beautiful way to indicate a deep commitment. The agreement has the function of strongly intertwining the bride and the groom’s lives into one thing. Symbolically it is extremely powerful.

Modern ketubahs, on the other hand, take other forms. Often they are an exchange of vows or promises and as such are an agreement between the bride and the groom. In these more contemporary styles of the ketubah, the content is updated to reflect a more common and egalitarian value system — often they are written in English along with modern Hebrew. In a modern ketubah text, the bride and groom are the main parties signing the document to seal the agreement, and the witnesses are secondary. This is in line with the modern European and American styles of contract, where the agreement is binding between two parties.

The choice of text is a very personal matter and many couples choose to write their own instead of relying on something previously written. There are couples who choose to base the ketubah on Jewish values and others who prefer to keep it completely secular. More and more common nowadays, are non-Jewish couples who adopt this tradition in order to give their wedding vows a physical form on display in their homes.

Ancient Ketubah
Ancient Mizrahi style illustration

The Ketubah As Art

Oftentimes, the ketubah is the very first work of art a couple will buy together. There are many styles to choose from. Traditional ketubahs usually depict scenes of Jerusalem of a tree of life. But there is no predetermined set of motifs that have to appear on a ketubah. In the photograph above you can see a ketubah from the 1700s when Venice belonged to the Republic of the Serenissima (way before being incorporated into Italy). The imagery depicted in it shows life as it must have been for wealthy merchant class Jews (who nonetheless had to live in segregation from the rest of the population until Napoleon conquered the Republic and liberated the Jewish ghetto). For the time, this ketubah must have been extremely modern looking.

Today’s ketubahs are no exception. They are modern and contemporary, and couples can find something to fit their personal sense of style. If you want to see what my designs look like, take a look at my shop. My papercut designs are predicated on being a work of art first and foremost, and would not look out of place on a living room wall. Only upon closer inspection does the fact that they are actually a ketubah become apparent. In many cases, couples choose to commission a design made to their specifications – to make it even more special. To show an example of just how varied this art form can be, compare my design is seen below (the Helios Ketubah, one of my most popular designs) to the examples above. The text is exactly the same, but the design aesthetic couldn’t be more different.

Whatever the ketubah means to you, it is worth putting in some thought ahead of time in regards to what you want it to be. Whether you want one because it is a religious requirement, or to honor a tradition or to immortalize your commitment. This is an item that will remain in your family in perpetuity. There are several online resources to find beautiful examples of historical ketubahs. A starting point would be at the Yale University Library where they hold a massive and very impressive collection that spans the continents across the centuries.



Papercut Ketubah Helios Hero