History of the Ketubah

The Ketubah is a staple by every Jewish wedding. Its symbolic feeling is immeasurable. Yet, as to how the Ketubah came about, and where it all started, is known by far and few in between. Click here to read more of its history and origins.


 

A trip through the history that led to the enactment of the ancient Jewish wedding contract, otherwise known as the Ketubah.

Early tradition

Let’s start with the what was biblicaly recognized as a mohar. In ancient times, the husband would gift the bride, and often times her family as well, with all types of incentives. [The reasoning to its name of mohar is not so clear. Though, some have suggested it stems from the word maher – in Hebrew these words contain the same letters. Maher means hastily or rapidly, something that is done quickly. This is the best wording in reference to the gift, it is the foremost, preliminary step to the wedding.]

From looking in the verses of the Torah, we see that there was no initial amount price for these gifts. Yet, after Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, we see that the price was defined. 50 silvers, which corresponds to 200 zuz, became the norm.

Due to the governing law, that all monies a woman produces become that of her husband, the promised money was only collected in the case of a divorce. Should a divorce be necessary, the husband would supply the agreed upon amount.

The evolving of the original writing

But who would merely trust the word of another to make sure this money is actually given. Could you blame someone for not wanting to trust their ex for the fair deal? Should a divorcee not be concerned her ex husband would alter the amount initially proposed? With this concern, came about the promise of these details in writing – though at that point the writing was not an obligation.

Now that it was in writing, it is as though it is set and stone, yet murphy found an issue. Let’s go back in time. A man would have numerous wives, resulting in numerous half siblings, and a few semi step-mothers.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you, that some teenagers have a hard time coming to terms with their own parents, let alone with step-parents. and here it’s with more than one!

Let’s address another point. It’s one thing to be nice if its free, but if it costs… should it stay the same? (Yes…. I know it should, but practically, is that so in all cases?) Take the case of a husband’s death. According to Jewish law, the male children are the heirs*. If they are to supply the Ketubah value to each of the wives, they may lose out on some nice benefits.

So, what would stop them from hiding that specific money that was set aside, or claiming that there is no cash left over? Remember, in the contract it only specified money, no mention of a lien on property.

*[The laws of inheritance are long and complex, way beyond the means of the article at hand. For more on the subject, and how these laws apply today, contact your Rabbi.]

The band-aid. Version 1.0 and 2.0

1.0

Now, a woman who has grown up all her years in her parents’ home, naturally, would trust them to watch her back. Therefore, sometime pre-mishanic era, the Ketubah would be given to the brides parents. This enactment came about to ensure that in the case of divorce or death, the Ketubah would be accessible. Having a Ketubah endowment in the possession of ones’ parents, is a great way to make sure it is not to be lost.

Nonetheless, as to the original intentions of a Ketubah – providing a surety to the bride, this did not add up. A Ketubah is a form encouraging the couple to work out any issues and not jump the gun to divorce. Having to dish out a large sum of money, would definitely make the average folk think twice.

The problem; the use of credit cards

Studies have proven, that when an individual makes a purchase with plastic, whether credit or debit, they spend more. While studies varied as to how much more, the fact remains that it is more. Numerous reasons have been given, and hey, this isn’t a finance class- but there is one element that equally applies in our case.

When one uses credit, they do not feel the ‘pain’ of the purchase. The money isn’t tangible, therefore the loss is not felt at the time of purchase. So too, in the case of the Ketubah. Ketubah money already paid = no ‘pain’ in conducting the payment. No ‘pain’ = not having to think twice. Couple that with a case of rage. When one is in a state of anger, they lose some of their ability of straightforward thinking. We now have two causes for the husband to easily execute a divorce.

It is incumbent upon the husband to not take divorce lightly, the severity of doing so is immensely tragic. In a case that all fees have been prepaid, who can stop a raging husband from this act?

2.0

Next idea; the Talmud suggests, what about storing the money with the wife? Yes, I know what you are thinking, if that is so, it as though the husband still has the money. (Remember, back then, it was the husband that controlled the accounts.)

A beautiful bowl, or maybe a platter, be it of gold or silver. These were ideas that were generated based on the value of the Ketubah. Prior to marriage, the husband would supply money to the wife, with which she would then create a tangible product.

In doing so, the wife saw her money, and was also guaranteed that it cannot be sold, ‘lost’ or stolen by a family member. Each and every utensil was custom made, either by the bride, or, in her stead, a craftsman. Regardless of the choice, each woman had a unique dish, which was a guarantee to her Ketubah endowment.

This idea too was set to fail. While the notion behind it may have been that the husband will see her walking away with the utensil, in the case of divorce, practically it didn’t help much. Shortly after its conception, came its alteration. The ‘prepaid’ money was still easily accessible.

The solution

With no enactments fulfilling the job’s purpose, it was time for a face lift. A Ketubah that would make divorce a process, giving the wife a sense of security.

Until this point in history, all Ketubah endowments, at the time known as ‘mohar’, were paid at the commencement of marriage. However, as seen above, there was no way to pre-pay this amount without encountering setbacks. Either the money could possibly be ‘lost’ or stolen, or divorce would be easily accomplished. Both tremendously effecting the wife.

Shimon ben Shetach (120-40 BCE) was a great scholar, teacher and extremely influential due to his strong connections with the government. He was known for his fairness, and feelings to every human being. It is thus no wonder, that it was he to see the need of a Ketubah enactment.

Under Shimon ben Shetach’s new Ketubah contract, it is not cash that was delivered to the bride, rather a commitment. A commitment to marriage. A commitment of love and trust. Should a divorce be necessary, it is upon the Ketubah we turn. In it, money is promised to the bride. A promise that is backed with all of the husbands possessions. It was no longer a certain property or vessel that the husband owns, rather, it was everything in the husbands possessions. In a case of divorce, it is once the Ketubah has been paid in full, that the husband can then reclaim the rest of his wealth.

It is with this, that the husband had to think twice before a divorce, as no prepayments have been made. The wife can then be rest assured, her husband will not suddenly, and pointlessly leave her.

Practical application

From the original Ketubah that Shimon ben Shetach created, sets forth the Ketubah we use today. The current Ketubah has minor alterations from the Talmudic scholars as they saw fit. Shimon ben Shetach not only spoke words but also relayed into action. He created a standard text to which all can relate. It is humbling to know how our Ketubah text came about, and how world Jewry kept it as the Jewish wedding contract through the ages.
The difference may be, if one is of Sephardic or Ashkenazic decent.

Conclusion

Through all of history husbands committed to pay and help their wives in case of divorce. It was with this that a woman knew that her husband wouldn’t freely divorce her. Different approaches have been tried, yet the Ketubah enactment from some time in the years 120-40 BCE fulfilled its intentions to the greatest extent. Hence, it is still in practice today.
The Ketubah text is a contract placing a lien, on all of the husbands current and future properties.

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