Home Featured Jewish Learning The ketubah: A document of devotion – part two

The ketubah: A document of devotion – part two

Most couples today lead lives very much at odds with the power imbalance that underwrites the traditional ketubah, writes Sara Horowitz VIMEO PHOTO

“The obligation of this marriage contract [includes] both mortgageable property and non-mortgageable property. All of it shall be mortgaged and bound as security to pay this marriage contract, this dowry, and this additional amount. [It can be taken] from me, even from the shirt on my back, during my lifetime, and after my lifetime, from this day and forever.”

– Excerpt from the text of a traditional ketubah


It doesn’t rival Shakespeare’s great love sonnets, does it? Or maybe even your latest tax return. And if you’ve heard it read aloud in the chuppah, you probably didn’t understand it unless you are conversant in the original Aramaic text. Last time we looked at the origins of the ketubah. Today, what this ancient document means, whether it really is enforceable and why some people have decided to update it.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis sums it up well. “Over the course of marriage, the husband traditionally has three primary obligations to his wife: He must provide her with food, clothing, and sexual satisfaction. Food and clothing, of course, represent the basic economic necessities of life, and the clear implication of the traditional ketubah text is that the husband will effectively provide for his wife’s economic well-being. In the case of divorce, the ketubah requires the husband to pay the wife a sum of money, which is dependent on her marital history prior to the current marriage [that is, whether she is a virgin, a divorcée, or a convert].”

Eliezer Segal continues, at its “heart is the stipulation of monetary amounts to be paid by the husband in case of divorce. As practical as this matter might be, it is considered an awkward topic to be introducing under the chuppah. Usually, the financial obligations are enumerated as a generic number of ‘pieces of pure silver’ – though at Israeli weddings it is still common to mention (and haggle over) units of real currency.”

But Rabbi Gordis points out that criticism of the traditional text include its lack of mutuality and its one-sided focus on financial issues. As well, there is reference to the woman’s previous marital status and sexual history but no mention made of the man’s.

That has led to a multitude of modern ketubah variations incorporating text like, “You are my wife according to the tradition of Moses and Israel. I shall cherish you and honour you as is customary among the sons of Israel who have cherished and honoured their wives in faithfulness and in integrity.” And paralleling that, “You are my husband according to the tradition of Moses and Israel. I shall cherish you and honour you as is customary among the daughters of Israel who have cherished and honoured their husbands in faithfulness and in integrity.”

One of the most significant changes is the so-called Lieberman Clause. Approved by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, the intent was to include prenuptial language into the ketubah which would help solve the problem of agunot – women who are prohibited from remarrying because their husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce.

The clause states that following the dissolution of their marriage in the civil courts, the former husband and wife “will abide by its instructions so that throughout life each will be able to live according to the laws of the Torah.” In other words, they agree at the outset that Jewish law will not impede them from obtaining a Jewish divorce document and should they desire, marry others.

However, there are misgivings about the use of the clause because of concerns over its legal validity due to the separation of church and state in the United States. As well, the Conservative Movement has developed alternative approaches to address the issue of agunot.

Which brings us back to a question about the original, traditional ketubah. In the case of a divorce, should the ex-wife expect to see delivery of those 200 pieces of silver as promised in her marriage document?

Not so fast, says Rabbi Michael J. Broyde. He points to a ruling from earlier this year in the New York Supreme Court between a couple married in Israel 21 years ago. The husband executed a ketubah with a payout of both 200 zekukim and 180,000 shekels (about $50,000).

The Court held that the ketubah could not be imposed because:

  • The ketubah is a religious document and thus is not enforceable in a U.S. court.
  • It would be a form of “double-dipping” to allow the wife to receive a divorce payout under American law and via the ketubah.
  • The ketubah falls short of a legal contract since the wife did not sign it.


Rabbi Broyde adds, “there is not a single case in America where a secular court has enforced the ketubah provision mandating payments.”

But enough of this talk of divorce! Next time, we conclude our look at ketubot with ideas about how to make yours one that you will treasure for a lifetime.

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