An illustrated ketubah

A ketubah (Hebrew: כתובה, "document"; pl. ketubot) is a Jewish marriage contract, and functions in a similar way to a prenuptial agreement. Some people[according to whom?] consider it an integral part of a traditional Jewish marriage[citation needed].

Usually it outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom, in relation to his bride. It has been suggested that posession of a ketubah was the principle distinction between merely being a Jewish concubine and being a proper wife[1]; Rashi suggested this in relation to the biblical description of Isaac's wife and of his concubine[2], while the Talmud draws this conclusion in relation to the accounts of David's wives and concubines[3]

There is no fixed formula for the documents, leading to a wide choice of style and content being available. There are now versions suitable for same-sex couples, for interfaith couples, and for secular humanists.


It is difficult to trace the exact origin of the use of written marriage contracts in Judaism. The earliest biblical reference to them is in the Book of Tobit, a text written after the Babylonian captivity, and frequently regarded as apocryphal[4]. The Talmud regards this institution as of ancient origin[5][6]; indeed, some of the Talmudic rabbis argued that it must have originated in the time of Moses, at least for marriage to a virgin bride[7][5].

A tosefta suggests that the Jewish use of written marriage contracts began with Hillel, who, it alleges, had instituted their use in order to discourage the irregularities of the way Alexandrian Jews treated marriage[8][9]; men would be dissauded from exercising their freedom to divorce their wives as they wished, if in order to do so they were contractually obliged to pay a sum of money - alimony - to the wife in question[1]. Maimonides, a prominent rabbi of the middle ages, argued that the Great Sanhedrin had established the use of written marriage contracts, in order to ensure that a Jewish wife would not be insignificant in the eyes of her husband[10].

Marriage contracts were a common feature in the Roman Empire as a whole, and scholars have no doubt that these non-Jewish contracts influenced the eventual development of the Jewish ones[1]. Surviving examples from the second century, in relation to couples who followed Graeco-Roman religion, contain agreements of the husbands to give their wives clothes, food, shelter, and other things seemly for wives to have, in return for the wives conducting themselves blamelessly, and without reproach[1].

Later Christian marriage contracts, surviving from the sixth century, add to this an obligation for the husband to do all that is seemly for a wife to receive from a worthy husband, and an obligation for the wife to love, cherish, and honour him[1]. Justinian eventually abolished the institution among Christians[1], but this is essentially the same formula as is still traditional among Jews[1].

Legal content

Traditionally, the content of the ketubah formalises the various Jewish expectations of a husband vis à vis his wife, such as stipulating that the husband will provide the wife with clothes, food, and shelter[1]. A surviving ketubah from 1295 even includes a formal requirement for the husband to be entirely monogynous, and forbids him from keeping any servant-girls of whom the bride disapproves, in his house[1].

In return for these provisions, it is traditional for it to request that the wife love, cherish, and honour her husband, doing all things that are seemly for a Jewish wife to do, and that she conduct herself blamelessly, and without reproach[1]. In earlier centuries, it had been common practice for ketubahs to also list the bride's personal property in detail, but this practice eventually became unfashionable, due to the potential shame which it might bring upon a poor bride[1]; this practice can be seen among some of the numerous ketubahs found in the Cairo Genizah[1].

A particularly important mediaeval ketubah, found in the Cairo Genizah, concerns a marriage between a Rabbinical Jewish groom and a Karaite bride, in the year 1082[1]. In this, the groom agrees to not compel his wife to use lighting during the evening before Shabbat (as the Karaites regarded this as forbade), and he agrees to abstain from eating certain animal fats which the Karaites regarded as non-kosher[1]; in return, the bride agreed to observe the religious holidays of Rabbinic Judaism, except where doing so would breach Karaite religious holidays[1]. At the time, there was much conflict between Karaites and Rabbinic Jews; Maimonides added his voice to the controversy[1] by suggesting that ketubahs should include a clause compelling marital couples to obey the rules of Rabbinic Judaism, in relation to ritual purity[1].

Though historic Jewish regulations regard men as the heirs to the property of their wife(s)[11], the Mishnah mentions a circumvention of this rule; it indicates that a ketubah could stipulate that the bride's male children should be the heirs to her property[12] (rabbinic courts would uphold this decision). The document could also contain a provision instructing that the wife should receive continued maintenance payments from her husband's estate, in the event of his death, for as long as she remains resident in his home[11]. Similarly, it could also stipulate that, in the event of the husband's death, his estate must make continued maintenance payments to any female children of the couple, until they become betrothed, or reach the age of majority[11].

In modern times, Conservative Jews often include an additional paragraph, called the Lieberman clause, which stipulates that any divorce must be adjudicated by a modern rabbinical court in order to prevent the creation of a chained wife. Among Orthodox Jews, the same purpose is served by means of a clause, in an independent agreement, imposing a large daily fine, levelled against the husband if he refuses to grant his wife a requested divorce. Under Reform Judaism, the ketubah is often made more egalitarian, and a wife cannot become chained.


Main article: Alimony in Judaism

Regardless of the above elements, the key detail in most ketubahs was the requirement for the groom to ensure that if the couple divorced, or he died, the bride would receive alimony[1]; this alimony is often referred to as the ketubah, in addition to the actual ketubah itself. The Talmud sets the minimum amount for this alimony as 200 zuzim for a bride who had been a virgin when the marriage began, and a mere 100 zuzim for a non-virgin bride[13], though it also states that Jewish priests and nobility commonly gave twice these amounts as the alimony[13]; 200 Zuzim is generally considered[by whom?] to have been enough for a woman to financially support herself for six months[14][15].

These minimum amounts were not the upper limit, meaning that the groom could, if he wished, increase the amount of alimony that the bride would receive; the amount added by the groom was usually recorded in the ketubah, together with the total amount[1]. Any property which came into the marriage as a dowry-like gift, was legally posessed by the husband during the marriage[11], but it eventually returned to the bride's ownership, as part of her alimony (at least according to the classical rabbis)[16]. It was common for the ketubah to record these values, together with the total amount for the alimony; this is still the case in Sephardic communities[citation needed], but Ashkenazi communities have since adopted the custom of specifying fixed amounts in the ketubah instead[citation needed].

The alimony was intimately tied to the right and the obligation of the couple to have sexual intercourse with each other. The Talmudic rabbis insisted that the couple could not have sexual intercourse with each other, unless the alimony specified by the ketubah was at least the Talmud's minimum amount[17]. Conversely, for each week that the husband refused to have sexual intercourse with the bride, the rabbinical courts imposed a fine of 36 grains of silver, which was to be paid to the bride (eventually) as an additional part of her alimony[1].



The ketubah, like other traditional Jewish legal documents, was historically written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Jews at the time the Oral Law was codified[1]. Nowadays many Orthodox ketubahs also have translations into English or other vernacular languages[citation needed]. In a similar manner, Conservative Jews still use traditional ketubahs, but since the invention of Modern Hebrew, they have combined each new ketubah with an additional official version in that language[citation needed]. In Reform Judaism, the text is sometimes a traditional text, but accompanied by a more creative, poetic and egalitarian rendition in the vernacular language (such as English, for English-speaking couples)[citation needed].


Many ketubahs are accompanied by a preamble[1]. This may vary from something as short as just three letters, representing the words with good luck, to a phrase such as in a good hour, or a biblical quote such as whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing[18][1]. It may even take the form of immensely ornate poetry[1]; the preamble used by modern Yemenite Jews, Maimonides, mediaeval Persian Jews, and Saadia, combined a prayer requesting good luck, with one requesting good fortune for the couple, and for the local nagid or rosh yeshiba[1]. The ketubahs of Reform Jews often stress the values on which the marriage is wishfully based, such as love, companionship, and family.

Legal wording

The ketubah stipulates the date and place of the marriage. The date is usually given in one of the dating systems traditional to the marriage location; in the Middle East, the Seleucid Era is invariably used, while in Europe, the Anno Mundi system is preferred (though a ketubah from Metz, in 1820, gives the number of years since the Napoleonic era began)[1]. The place is always identified with a concern for geographical accuracy[1]; for example, Paris was identified as being on the rivers Seine and Bièvre, while London was identified as being on the Tamesis and Galbrook[1]

The remainder of the wording varies substantially between different Jewish communities, and between different historical periods[19]. For example, Maimonides proposed the following wording:

On [day of the week], the [ordinal number] day of the month [name of month] in the year [number of year in Jewish dating system] since the creation of the world, the era according to which we are accustomed to reckon here in the city of [name of city] how [name of groom] son of [name of groom's father] said to this virgin [name of bride] daughter of [name of bride's father]

Be thou my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel, and I will work for thee, honor, support, and maintain thee in accordance with the custom of Jewish husbands who work for their wives, honor, support, and maintain them in truth. And I will set aside for thee 200 zuz, in lieu of thy virginity, which belong to thee (according to the law of Moses), and thy food, clothing, and necessaries, and live with thee in conjugal relations according to universal custom.

And [name of bride] this virgin consented and became his wife. The dowry that she brought from her father's house, in silver, gold, valuables, dresses, and bedclothes, amounts to [official amount], and [name of groom] the bridegroom consented to increase this amount from his own property with the sum of [the same amount again], making in all [twice the amount]. And thus said [name of groom] the bridegroom,

I take upon myself and my heirs after me the responsibility of this marriage contract, of the dowry, and of the additional sum, so that all this shall be paid from the best part of my property, real and personal, that I now possess or may hereafter acquire. All my property, even the mantle on my shoulders, shall be mortgaged for the security of this contract and of the dowry and of the addition made thereto.

[name of groom] the bridegroom has taken upon himself the responsibility for all the obligations of this ketubah, as is customary with other ketubot made for the daughters of Israel in accordance with the institution of our sages - may their memory be for a blessing! It is not to be regarded as an illusory obligation or as a mere form of document. We have followed the legal formality of symbolical delivery between [name of groom] son of [name of groom's father], the bridegroom, and [name of bride] daughter of [name of bride's father], this virgin, and have employed an instrument legally fit for the purpose to strengthen all that is stated above, and everything is valid and established.

— Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yabam 4:33[1]


A ketubah from Mantua in 1662[20].The apparent drawings of ornate latticework, the images in the top corners, and the gate's framework, are actually formed from a number of biblical quotations, in the form of extremely minuscule writing[20]

Many couples, especially among Cochin Jews and Sephardi Jews[19], follow the Jewish tradition of hiddur mitzvah, which calls for ceremonial objects to be made as beautiful as possible. Thus ketubahs are a significant popular form of Jewish ceremonial art, and they have been decorated in the most varied ways[1]. Some of the most ornate specimins are from 18th and 19th century Italy[1]; the Musée de Cluny, and the Smithsonian Institution, house some particularly good examples[1].

Early ornamentation took the form of golden lettering, calligraphy, and generic illumination[1]. Later, it became a fashion in many Jewish communities to decorate texts with designs formed by minuscule biblical quotations[1]; for example, a surviving ketubah for a marriage in Parma, in 1688, includes the entire text of the Book of Canticles, in the form of an elaborate floral design surrounding the main text[1]. In the Ottoman Empire, Jewish ketubahs included the decorative touches common to Islamic texts in the region, including arabesque[1]. In modern times, Angels, coronets, flowers, and fruit, are common additional decorations[1].

In early times, portraits of the marital couple were often included in the ketubah[19]. In later times, more allusive personal illustrations were often made[1]; for example, if the bride was named Esther, the ketubah often included a depiction from the Book of Esther's account of Esther[1]. On occasion, generic conventional western imagery, such as pierced hearts and lovebirds are substituted instead of such personal imagery[1].


Role in marriage ceremony

In the marriage ceremony, a vernacular translation of the ketubah is read out or chanted[19] (the latter being the tradition of the Cochin Jews[21], for example); usually it is the groom who performs this task, but in locations such as Sri Lanka it is performed by a presiding rabbi[19]. The ketubah is then signed by the groom and witnesses, if it has not already been, and is then handed to the bride[19]; in some locations it is traditional for the groom to thrice announce here is your ketubah while handing it over[19].

In a few places, particularly the Indian subcontinent, a presiding official (Hazzan or rabbi) symbolically obligates the husband to fulfil his duties specified in the ketubah, by making him take hold of the presiding official's outer garment, either once or thrice[21][19]; the traditions vary in regard to whether this occurs just after the ketubah is handed over (as among the Cochin Jews[21]), or just before it is (as among the Jews of Sri Lanka[19]).

In some locations, including North America and the modern State of Israel, these events occur just before the couple enter the huppah[citation needed], but elsewhere, these events may themselves occur in the huppah, or there may be several other intervening events before the huppah comes into use[19]

Display and storage

Ketubahs are often hung prominently in the home by the married couple as a daily reminder of their vows and responsibilities to each other[citation needed]. However, in some communities, the ketubah is either displayed in a very private section of the home or is not displayed at all[citation needed]; various reasons are given for this, including the fact that the ketubah specifies personal details, and therefore that prominent display may invite jealousy, or the evil eye[citation needed]. Among the Jewish communities in the Caucasus, it is sometimes common for a ketubah to be placed in the owner's grave[22]


Orthodox Jews believe they cannot even have sex with their spouses if they lose their ketubah, even if it has been stolen[23][24]. However, a replacement ketubah could be created[1]; two or three witnesses were required for this, each signing the document as a certification that the original ketubah had been lost, and that the husband had requested the replacement[1]. It is traditional for the date recorded in the replacement to be the same as that in the original ketubah[1]; if this date is no longer known, the date the replacement was created usually would be used instead[1].

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Ketubah". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  2. ^ Rashi, Commentary, ad. loc. Genesis 25:6
  3. ^ Sanhedrin 91a
  4. ^ Tobit 7:14
  5. ^ a b Ketubot 10a
  6. ^ Ketubot 82b
  7. ^ Yebamot 89a
  8. ^ Ketubot (Tosefta) 11:9
  9. ^ Baba Metzia (Tosefta) 104a
  10. ^ Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Ishut, 16
  11. ^ a b c d  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Husband and Wife". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  12. ^ Ketubot 4:9-11
  13. ^ a b Ketubot 12a
  14. ^ Kiddushin [clarification needed]
  15. ^ Gittin [clarification needed]
  16. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "dowry". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  17. ^ Ketubot 54b
  18. ^ Proverbs 18:22
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "marriage ceremonies". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  20. ^ a b [1]
  21. ^ a b c Salomon Rinman, Mas'ot Shelomoh, 1884
  22. ^ Joseph Judah Chorny, Sefer ha-Massa'ot, 1884, p. 26
  23. ^ Abraham Danzig Wisdom of Adam 129:17
  24. ^ Moses ben Isaac Judah Lima, Helkat Mehokek, to Shulkhan Arukh, Eben haEzer 66:2