Traditional ketubah tests modern egalitarian ideas
By Michele Alperin
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For many brides and grooms, the ketubah signing that precedes the veiled walk down the aisle has a bit of mystery about it. They may not be sure exactly what the ancient Aramaic text says, but the signing ceremony sets just the right air of solemnity as a prelude to the veiled walk down the aisle.
The couples who do read the text carefully encounter a document that seems at least mildly chauvinist, with the husband taking an active role and the wife only consenting to become his wife. Although some couples decide to write their own egalitarian ketubah and forego the traditional document, many decide to also have a standard ketubah.
Donna Frieze, a convert to Judaism, had an additional kosher ketubah to ensure the legality of her marriage. “Later in life,” she said, “we don’t know if we or our children would want to go to Israel and if there would be any question about our marriage.”
Despite legitimate concerns by feminists with the male-oriented language of the ketubah, the document originally developed as an insurance policy to protect the bride if the marriage ends—either through divorce or death of the husband.
The most fundamental role of the ketubah, said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual advisor at Yeshiva University, is to elucidate the responsibilities and obligations a husband accepts in a marriage. According to Maurice Lamm’s the “Jewish Way in Love and Marriage,” the ketubah specifies that the husband is setting aside 200 silver zuzim, called a mohar, that will be paid to the bride in the event of his death or a divorce.
The husband also agrees in the ketubah to support his wife with food, clothing and “other necessary benefits,” which the Talmud defines as satisfactory conjugal relations.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained in 2003, maintained that a ketubah can express greater mutuality and still be in consonance with Jewish law. Using as a basis for her ketubah a document created by Rabbi Gordon Tucker and posted, with commentary, at ritualwell.org, Jacobs and her husband Guy Austrian expressed mutual responsibility for each other in their ketubah: “The groom and bride also agreed of their own free will to work for one another, to honor, support, and nurture one another, to live together as a family, and to create their home in love, companionship, peace and friendship as befits the sons and daughters of Israel.”
The traditional ketubah also lists two additional transfers of property. One is the bride’s dowry, or nedunya, of silver, gold, valuables, clothing and household furnishings, which the groom accepts in the sum of 100 zuzim. The second is an additional 100 zuzim, called tosefet ketubah, that the groom provides as a wedding gift to the bride. In the Sefardic world, the tosefet ketubah is often a negotiated sum that is specified in the currency of the land.
The groom must secure these monetary obligations with a lien on his property: “I take upon myself and my heirs after me,” reads the ketubah, “the surety of this ketubah, of the dowry and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire.”
In the notes to Tucker’s ketubah, which Jacobs described as “the bare minimum of what you need halakhically,” he claims that the only obligatory elements of the ketubah are the mohar and the lien it engenders. Concerning these monetary payments, added Jacobs, “they are part of a ketubah, but it is not necessary to specify how much.”
Here is the language that Tucker and, in turn, Jacobs included to allude to both the mohar and the lien on property: “The groom and the bride also accepted full legal responsibility for the obligations specified here, as well as for the various property entering the marriage from their respective homes and families, and agreed that the obligations of this ketubah may be satisfied even from movable property.”
The standard ketubah, despite its formulaic nature, is required for every Orthodox marriage. Because the standard ketubah does not require a husband to grant his wife a religious divorce and a get, Blau supported the idea of a bride and groom signing, in addition to the ketubah, a separate prenuptial agreement—also to protect the bride in case of a divorce.
Although the Orthodox community is committed to the existing ketubah document, whose language come from the Mishnah, Blau said he has no problem with a bride and a groom making additional agreements and commitments, as long as they do not controvert Jewish law.
When Jacobs and her husband got married, they did not want to have two ketubot, but rather one ketubah that satisfied both Jewish law and their own values. “We wanted something that to our standards was halachically acceptable,” she explained, but also egalitarian.
Using Tucker’s ketubah and adding to it three additional paragraphs of a more personal nature enabled Jacobs and her husband to have a single ketubah, something that is often not true for couples Jacobs has married. If they have written their own ketubah, but not in a way that satisfies Jewish law, she requires them to have an additional kosher ketubah—even if it is a Microsoft Word printout that will go in a safe deposit box after the ceremony.
But for Jacobs and her husband, it was important to have a single ketubah. “Since we believe our ketubah is halachically valid,” she said, “we thought it would be demeaning to have a separate halachich ketubah.”
Michele Alperin is a freelance writer, a bar/bat mitzvah tutor and a former life-cycle editor for MyJewishLearning.com. She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.