This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Ketubbah Texts Reveal Clues of Ancient Values*

At most of the Jewish weddings that I have observed in recent years, not much emphasis was placed on the reading of the Ketubbah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract. The prosaic legalisms that make up this contract do not always conform to the mood of sentimental spirituality that we consider appropriate to a wedding ceremony, and they are often mumbled cursorily from a standardized text that is written in an incomprehensible Aramaic dialect.

At the heart of the Ketubbah is the stipulation of monetary amounts to be paid by the husband i n case of divorce. As practical as this matter might be, it is considered an awkward topic to be introducing under the huppah. Usually, the financial obligations are enumerated as a generic number of "pieces of pure silver"--though at Israeli weddings it is still common to mention (and haggle over) units of real currency.

Originally the Ketubbah's chief purpose was to deter the husband from impulsively divorcing his wife. However, since the medieval enactment that prohibits divorcing a woman without her consent, the institution of the Ketubbah has become something of a ritual formality.

Although stereotyped uniformity characterizes the wording of almost all current Ketubbahs, this situation has not always been the case. Ketubbahs produced in other ages and lands demonstrate greater flexibility and creativity in the formulation of the clauses and conditions of the marriage contract.

Indeed, texts of Ketubbahs have been unearthed in just about every important trove of ancient Jewish manuscripts. The earliest known Ketubbah dates from 5th-century B.C.E., and is contained in an archive from the island of Elephantine in the Nile, which housed a colony of Jewish mercenaries in the employ of the Persian emperor. From the Ketubbot and other records that were preserved there it is possible to reconstruct a vivid picture of the life of that lost society.

Other Ketubbah texts are included among the archeological remnants of Simeon Bar-Kokhba's revolutionary headquarters, including that of the remarkable "Babata, daughter of Simeon," a second-century Jewish woman who left us an invaluable purse full of assorted bills, receipts and other documents. Several marriage-contracts are also included among the tattered fragments of the Cairo Genizah.

Many of these documents reveal surprising departures from the versions that are in widespread use today. The Elephantine Ketubbot, for example, include separate clauses to deal with the termination of marriages at the initiative of either the husband or the wife. One such text contains the following stipulation of penalty clauses for the party that asks for the divorce:

"If at some time Ananiah should stand up before the assembly and declare: `I reject my wife Jehoshama. She shall not be my wife!' then he is obligated to pay divorce money... And if Jehoshama should reject her husband Ananiah and declare before him `I reject you and will not be your wife!' then she shall be obliged to pay the `divorce money'..."

The prospect of the wife divorcing her husband would be considered impossible by later Jewish law. However, Ketubbah clauses that define the wife's rights to compel the husband to issue a divorce are cited in the Jerusalem Talmud, and were written into most of the "Genizah" Ketubbah texts, which emanate from Egypt and the Land of Israel. The wording in those documents bears an uncanny resemblance to the formulas found in the Elephantine contracts, composed 1500 years earlier, and indicate a continuous evolution throughout that time.

In general, the wording of the texts from the Cairo Genizah expresses a different approach towards marriage from the one that characterizes our conventional Ketubbot. The latter speak only from the husband's perspective, as the one who is acquiring a wife and accepting obligations towards her, while the wife passively consents to the terms. The Palestinian tradition, on the other hand, placed an emphasis on the mutuality of the relationship. Thus, t he marriage is referred to not as nissu'in (literally: carrying, taking), but as a shutafut, a partnership, or a b'rit, a covenant. Some Karaite Ketubbot call the bride a h\averah, a companion. In addition to the groom's commitment to "nourish, provide for, honour and esteem," the wife in turn promised to "serve, attend, honour and esteem" her spouse.

The study of the Jewish marriage contract thus opens a fascinating windows into the lives and world-views of previous generations.

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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Feb. 16 1995, p. 22.


  • B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968.

  • Y. Yadin, Bar-Kokhba, London, 1978.

  • M. A. Friedman, Jewish Marriage in Palestine: A Cairo Geniza Study, Tel-Aviv and New York, 1980-81.

  • M. A. Friedman, "The Ethics of Medieval Marriage," in: Religion in a Secular Age, ed. S. D. Goitein, Cambridge Mass, 1974, 83-101.