The Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah): A Modern Explanation
Modern Ketubahs are personalized works of art, including both the text of the symbolic marriage contract and artwork in the margins. The text of modern ketubahs (or ketubot, the plural in Hebrew) has been adapted to fit better the modern understanding of marriage as a partnership based in love and commitment, not legality. Some couples use the ketubah to detail how they will share responsibilities and resolve conflicts. In the modern liberal Jewish world, couples can consider a much wider range of ketubah options than in any previous era of Jewish history. There are interfaith ketubot, LGBT ketubot, secular humanist ketubot and more.
Ideas for ketubah text can be found here, or at sites like ketubahketubah.com, ketubah.com, Modernketubah.com and ketubah-gallery.com, as well as in books like The New Jewish Wedding, Revised, by Anita Diamant.
In most modern Jewish/interfaith weddings, the couple signs the Ketubah about a half hour before the wedding ceremony in the presence of two witnesses of their choosing, their immediate family and the wedding party.
Ketubahs are considered prized wedding mementoes and are typically framed and hung in a prominent place in the couple's home after the wedding. Many people hire professional ketubah-makers to create a one-of-a-kind calligraphed work of art.
The Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah): A Traditional Explanation
In ancient times, a Ketubah was a legally binding marriage contract, signed by two witnesses, that "verifie[d] that the groom has acquired the bride and agrees to provide for her, and includes a lien to be paid by the groom in case of divorce, according to Valerie S. Thaler. As you can imagine, in the liberal Jewish world, there aren’t too many couples, straight or gay, who want to sign a wedding contract in which one partner “acquires” another. But roughly 1900+ years ago, Middle Eastern norms regarding marriage and gender roles were quite different. One thing the original traditional ketubah did was guarantee the bride some financial security in the event that the groom divorced her (and of course, in that era traditional authorities did not recognize same-sex marriage, whereas in the liberal Jewish community we happily do today).
For a full transcript of the traditional ketubah text, see Explaining the Ketubah Text by Rabbi Maurice Lamm.
Sample Program Definitions
- This is a marriage contract with spiritual significance but not legally binding. While it once had legal status in the Jewish community, a state marriage license is also required, except in Israel if the couple has an Orthodox Ketubah.
- A Jewish legal marriage document with a legacy spanning two thousand years. It is typically signed before the wedding ceremony by the couple and at least two witnesses. The original formulation was written by Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, head of the ancient rabbinical court about 1900 years ago. It was a legal document that detailed some of the rights and obligations of the bride and groom. It offered some financial protection for the bride in the event of divorce, which some scholars say was a step forward for the rights of women, given the era in which it was written. Modern liberal ketubot are typically spiritual, not legal, covenants between both partners getting married. They use egalitarian language and honor gay and straight weddings equally. The ketubah is often written as an illuminated manuscript and becomes a work of art in itself. Many couples frame it and display it in their home.
Return to the Guide to Wedding Ceremonies for Interfaith Couples