One of the pleasures of getting married in the Jewish (or Quaker, or Muslim, or Nigerian) way is the elaborate contract tradition that’s resulted in so much beautiful ritual and artwork. In each of these traditions (and some others also), legal or quasi-legal texts, shared by the couple and signed by members of their community, “validate” the union. The couple is not just “exchanging vows” that are heartfelt; each spouse is actually signing a contract with the other, and the guests gathered at the celebration are there to witness it, and to remember it in case the fragile paper is ever lost, destroyed, damaged, confiscated, or otherwise removed from the couple’s possession. Even in a peaceful place and time, it would stabilize relationships to have a written version of the festivities around the joining of two households. And one need only remember the final scenes in the film Fiddler on the Roof, as the Jewish families of the little village of Anatevka are forced out of the area and dispersed across Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and the United States, to understand how important it might become in the extreme circumstances of migration, exile or diaspora to have people or a document that can bear witness to one’s status as a legally married person.
But what exactly is the traditional Jewish marriage contract called ketubah ( כתובה ), literally “written document”?
A family affair
Legal contracts were used regularly in the world of the ancient Mediterranean to solidify marriages and betrothals, since these were considered family affairs, not romantic connections. Some of the earliest extant texts documenting marriages and betrothals in a similar fashion come from an extensive archive of papyri found in Egypt, known as the “Elephantine papyri.”
Egyptian farmers uncover treasure
It took a long time simply to discover and bring them to light, as they were buried under trash heaps and other areas on the island of Elephantine (then called Yeb), near Aswan, for three centuries. Over many years, from 1815 to 1904, papyri with dates ranging over 3000 years in all were discovered on this little island in the middle of the Nile. One papyri stash, for instance, was first discovered by Egyptian farmers in 1893, while digging for fertilizer in the remains of ancient mud-brick houses. The original texts were written in various languages, including Demotic Egyptian, Hieratic Egyptian, Persian, Aramaic, and more. Luckily for modern English readers, Bezalel Porten has made 175 of these documents available in English in one book, The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (Leiden: Brill 1996; 2nd ed. Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta 2011).
Protection for the bride, responsibility for the groom
The Elephantine papyri ketubahs show many of the elements that would become standard in later Jewish contract law. The bride was expected to enter into the marriage with a fair amount of stored up money, in the form of cash, handcrafts and textiles (usually created by the bride herself by hand), furniture (such as a bed), and capital (such as land, or farming implements), which her husband was permitted to use (and with luck to enhance) during the course of their marriage. The groom promised to match this “dowry” with his own contribution, a set cash amount, and promised that in case of the dissolution of the marriage, he and his family and children after him took on the obligation to repay the amount that the bride brought in to her. This in turn would allow her to return to her family’s household, and in some cases to marry again.
Attempt to stop land and wealth grabs
In context, the ketubah was protective especially of the woman and her family, making sure that the bride would not have her property stolen or taken from her in case the marriage did not work out. The problem of a man’s leaving a marriage and not returning the bride’s property (her dowry) must have caused strife in the community between families; some marriages may have been almost transparent land or property grabs. Dissolution of a marriage and the theft of the bride’s dowry also meant that a woman might not be able to survive and re-marry afterwards, since she would be left destitute and could not rely on her family to provide a second dowry. It’s for this reason that the traditional Orthodox and Conservative Aramaic texts are essentially statements by the groom about his intentions, the money he is bringing in to match the bride’s dowry, and his acceptance of the legal responsibility for repaying her should he ever leave. The dramatic and solemn statement in the ketubah goes so far as to have the groom promise that he will literally give the shirt off his back to repay if necessary, and that not only he, but his children and descendants were taking on this responsibility, so that even if he died before being able to repay her, the repayment would still take place. It was that important to the well-being of the community, since this would avoid family feuding.
Traditional “Orthodox” Ashkenazic texts through the RCA
You can read a literal English translation of the basic Ashkenazic ketubah text (now known as “Orthodox,” and in this wording approved by the Rabbinical Council of America, the RCA) here. The RCA makes a charming print version of the ketubah text available also, with spaces for filling in your personal details.