The Ketuba


By Ardyn Halter © 2000

For two thousand years Jewish couples have recorded their weddings in a marriage contract or Ketuba (plural Ketubot), a document whose text, in orthodox Jewish circles, has remained almost unchanged to the present day. In its Orthodox form, the Ketuba is an elaborate insurance document, stipulating, usually in Aramaic, the duties and commitments of the groom to the bride in specific terms: money, clothing, care,; consideration... and even satisfaction.

Over the past two hundred years with the emergence of the Reform, Conservative and Liberal movements in Judaism, different texts have evolved.

Some of these have served to strengthen the position of the bride in the event of a divorce, while others have diverged from the traditional text in favour of an egalitarian exchange of vows whose focus is more on love, fidelity and care than on the pragmatic nitty-gritty detail and legalities.

Common to all the different streams of Judaism is the tradition of a decorated document. And over the centuries the Ketuba has evolved into the richest form of visual tradition in Jewish life. Whether the Ketuba is an elaborate piece of art commissioned from a renowned Ketuba artist or a simple print, the wealthy and the not-so-well-to-do are conscious of its central role in the wedding. Read out under the huppah or marriage canopy in the presence of family and friends, the Ketuba is central to the wedding. It is fitting that such a document also be visually attractive, a key element in the aesthetics of the celebration.

If a Ketuba has been lost then it must be replaced. A Ketuba may be used also for anniversaries. Indeed, in recent years, anniversary Ketubot have become increasingly popular as gifts within families, to parents or grandparents, signed by friends or the family gathered to celebrate the occasion.

Above all, a Ketuba is an opportunity to celebrate the visual aesthetic traditions of Jewish life for, historically, no ritual object, no manuscript offered more latitude for aesthetic expression than the Ketuba. Traditionally Ketubot are lavishly decorated, replete with colour and images of joy or detailed and finely worked. A Ketubot is an object to be prized, framed and hung in pride of place on the walls of the couple's home.