Everything is Illustrated

What Is a Ketubah?

Generally people think of the ketubah as a Jewish marriage document. In reality it is rather more like an insurance policy safeguarding the rights of the woman entering the marriage in case of its dissolution, be it through divorce or the husband's death. The traditional ketubah text opens with specifying the date, place and names of the couple about to be wed and a general statement by the groom asking the bride to "Be my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel." The groom then promises to fulfill his marital obligations to feed, support and honor his wife and live with her "according to the custom of the world" - a reference to a satisfying sexual partnership. The major part of the ketubah then moves on to the declaration by the groom of the amounts of money he pledges to pay his wife himself, in the case of a divorce, or have paid to her from his estate in case of his death. For more in-depth understanding of the place of the ketubah in Jewish law (halakhah) pertaining to marriage and divorce, see my book Women and Jewish Law. It is available at most Judaica bookstores and on Amazon.com, or you may order it directly from me via email.

The tradition of illuminating ketubot is rich and varied with a plethora of styles, typical of each Jewish community in its region and time. Thus, for example, Italian ketubot from the Renaissance often feature nudes in pastoral settings while ketubot from Iran typically include the Royal House insignia -a lion with a sun rising behind his back. For more information and stunning reproductions, see the beautiful book The Ketubah: Jewish Marriage Contracts through the Ages by David Davidovitch, generally available at excellent Judaica bookstores and research libraries.

The art of writing and illuminating Ketubot was revived in the 1970's in the United States as part of the renewal of Jewish life and traditions outside the Orthodox world (see, for example, The Jewish Catalog) and Jewish Feminism. Contemporary, egalitarian ketubot, and more recently, same gender versions, modify the traditional text by emphasizing the mutual obligations of the partners towards each other as well as the values and ideals they hold in common.