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Making Ketubahs Modern–Your Love Is Worth Seven Goats, A Sheep, An Ox, and an iPod

A while back Laurel wrote a couple of pieces about ketubahs, and notably about how to find one that isn’t ugly. But what Laurel neglected to mention is that ketubahs are kind of a problem for some of us Jewcy Jews. People seem to think that ketubot are marriage contracts, and that they contain some kind of written agreement to love and cherish each other until death do us part. But actually, ketubot aren’t so much marriage contracts as they are prenuptial agreements. The original Aramaic text goes something like this:

On the ___ day of the week, the ___ day of the month ___, in the year 57__ since the creation of the world as we reckon time here in ___ (city, state), the groom, ___ son of ___, said to the bride, ___ daughter of ___, "Be my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel and I will cherish, honor, support and maintain you as is the custom of Jewish husbands who cherish, honor, support and maintain their wives faithfully. And I have given the settlement of __* silver zuzim that is due you according the dictates of the Torah* and [I will provide] your food, clothing and other needs and [I will] live with you according to universal custom." And the bride consented and became his wife. And the dowry that she brought, whether in silver, gold or jewelry, clothing, furniture or linens, is accepted by the groom for the amount of __* pure silver pieces. And the groom chose to add from his own pocket an additional sum of __* pure silver pieces for a total of __* pure silver pieces. And thus spoke the groom: "The responsibility of this contract, the dowry and the additional sum, I accept upon myself and upon my heirs after me to be guaranteed with the best of my property and possessions that I now own or may hereafter acquire. All my property, real and personal, shall be mortgaged to secure the payment of this contract, the dowry and the additional sum, during and after my lifetime, from today and forever." And the groom accepted the responsibility of this contract, the dowry and the additional sum, in accordance with the substance of all marriage contracts and additional sums provided for the daughters of Israel according to the dictates of our sages of blessed memory. This is not simply a forfeiture without consideration nor a mere form of contract. And we have observed the symbolic delivery carried out between groom and bride with regard to all the above in a manner that is legally valid and binding.

Basically the text says that if at any point the groom dies or wants to get divorced his wife gets the cash discussed here so she’s not destitute. It’s really more to obligate his kids to pay for her in case he dies and they don’t like her. And if you’re wondering how many pieces of silver (zuzim) it costs to get hitched, the deal is that each family kicks in a hundred pieces if the bride is a virgin (there’s no examination–if you’ve never been married it’s assumed) and less if the bride is divorced or widowed. These numbers are fixed now, but it used to be that there were heavy negotiations leading up to the writing of the ketubah. In part this was a function of families trying to give a new couple some kind of nest egg, and in part it was simply a business deal. It’s only in the past couple of centuries that we’ve gotten nervous about assigning monetary value to people. Before then people weren’t shy about insisting that they were being lowballed in a ketubah. It was, after all, a legal agreement that could have very serious ramifications for a woman, so she wanted to make sure she was covered if her husband headed for the hills or bought the farm. I’m probably not alone here in thinking that this particular agreement is somewhat devoid of romance, right? Certainly there’s nothing about eternal love going on in the original text. It’s an insurance agreement more than anything else, and while I think insurance is really important, I don’t generally hire an artist to render a watercolored interpretation of my All State claim. For whatever reason people have decided to really embrace this particular claim, so you can find ketubahs of all shapes and sizes to go with every kind of marriage, from Sephardic, to Interfaith to Reconstructionist to Commitment ceremony. In a way I think it’s cool that people want to write their own texts and be engaged with this legal tradition but I also find it puzzling. Why is this particular tradition of signing a document at a wedding so important? I think it’s because we understand how tenuous love and relationships can be, and there’s a part of us that wants something in writing. We want words on paper, something tangible, to be framed and put up on a wall, to be reminded of when things are tough. It is sometimes helpful to see something that obligates you to another person, even if it’s mainly a financial obligation. I’m not sure I would hang a traditional ketubah over the bed I share with my husband, but I have some sense of why one would do so. And I do feel an attachment to the original text, if only because it’s what has been binding Jewish couples together, for better or for worse, for thousands of years. If you think Jewish marriage customs are complicated and bizarre, check out this list of things you didn’t know about Musim marriages according to Shari’a law.

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