HMS 5764-34; Wedding 3 – The Ketubah

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

August 16, 2004 – Number 5764-34

Wedding 3 – The Ketubah

Since Weddings are not part of the Torah, the Talmud picks up where the Torah is silent. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, a man “acquires” a wife in one of three ways: With “Kesef”, By “Shtar” or with “Bi-ah”. The term “Kesef” means “money”. By giving a woman a gift that has a value, the man and woman are married. Today this is accomplished when the man gives the woman a ring.
“Shtar” means “contract” a man and woman are married when a man hands the woman a contract that provides some monetary security. Today, this contract is called a “Ketubah”.
“Bi-ah” refers to sexual intimacy. When a man and woman initiate a sexual relationship with marriage in mind, and two witnesses see them go into a room and spend time there alone. This also constitutes a marriage. The Sages admitted that this was a legal marriage, but they promised to flog any man who would take a wife this way. It was undignified for both parties and left the woman unprotected if the man wanted a divorce.
The origin of the Ketubah is in a simple financial arrangement. The price a man had to pay his future father-in-law became so high that the Rabbis were concerned that men would no longer marry. To relive this situation, the Sages ruled that the man could issue a “promissary note” for the amount of money (in ancient days, it was 200 zuzim, a great sum of money since you only need 2 zuzim for one goat) the man promised to pay the 200 zuzim if he were to predecease his wife or if he were to divorce her. This money represented a first mortgage on all his property and was actually paid in land. It was the first claim on his estate after he had died and secured the position of the widow so she would not fall into poverty.
Today we are used to seeing the Ketubah as a work of art, often commissioned especially for the wedding. We hear all kinds of beautiful language read at the wedding, but what we hear at a wedding in English has little relationship to the Aramaic text of the Ketubah. Since ancient days, the wording of the Ketubah reads, literally, like an insurance policy, because that is what it, in effect, really is. It is not romantic at all, rather is spells out the financial relationship between the husband and wife. At the wedding he signs the document and it is witnessed by two who are unrelated to either the bride or the groom, and then the groom hands the document to the bride under the Huppah. When she accepts it from his hand, they have been married according to the second definition of a wedding as described above.
While there is a custom in the Western Hemisphere, for the groom not to see the bride before the wedding, this is really just an old superstition. In a Jewish wedding the groom must see the bride before the wedding and usually it is right after the Ketubah is signed. Today, the Ketubah is signed by both the bride and the groom.
In the middle of the last century, the Conservative Movement added a clause to the Ketubah to help ease the plight of those who were stuck in a marriage when their partner refused to grant them a divorce. Sometimes there would be cases of extortion and pure greed that prevented a couple from ending a bad marriage. Without a proper Jewish Divorce, neither party could ever remarry. This clause in the Ketubah, called the “Liberman clause” after Rabbi Saul Liberman, a great Talmudic authority at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. It had both bride and groom promise to arbitrate and disputes in their marriage before a Rabbinical court and abide by its decision. It’s use has waned in recent years because of other remedies for divorce that have become popular that don’t cause one to think about divorce on the wedding day.
While the standard amount of a Ketubah is still 200 zuzim (today it is only a symbolic amount. A zuz no longer buys what it used to.) The Sephardim often put large sums of real money into their Ketubot as a sign of the love and affection for the bride. Conservative Judaism has not adopted this practice as it only complicates things should the relationship ever end up in divorce. It may seem strange that much of the wedding rituals also relate to divorce rituals as well, but the Rabbis did not create a wedding without creating a way out of marriage. Divorce is possible by Torah Law, and the Sages had to establish those rituals as well. They saw Divorce as “undoing” a marriage. So the two rituals are closely related. The Ketubah, the document of marriage, is nullified only by the Get, the Jewish document of divorce.

Next week: Wedding 4: The Wedding Ceremony

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