A ketubah is a Jewish Halachic document detailing a husband's obligations towards his wife during their married life together as well as in case of divorce or in the event of the husband's death. The language of the ktubah is Aramaic since it was formulated in the Talmudic period. It is usually read out aloud under the Huppa or marriage canopy. Nowadays its main points are also usually read out in Hebrew. It is then handed over to the wife for safekeeping in a place known to both her and her husband.
The oldest ketubah from 163 BCE was discovered in 1993 at the Maresha excavations (Lachish Region), written in Aramaic on clay in a version reminiscent of the one used nowadays. Another ancient ktubah was discovered in Ein Gedi belonging to the widow Babta a contemporary of Bar Kochba.
Since in accordance with the Torah a man may divorce his wife at will and without any compensation or obligation towards her (Deut.24:1) the Rabbis of the Talmud wanted to both make it difficult for the husband and to protect the wife they modified and ameliorated the marriage contract. Entering a marriage a man takes upon himself a number of obligations aimed at guaranteeing two basic requirements:
(a) The various aspects of a wife's status throughout the entire duration of the marriage should be secured and it divorcing her should not be easy.
(b) In case the marriage is dissolved the wife should not be denied immediate means of livelihood. The main obligation of the husband is to provide her with certain amounts of money , some determined in advance and others decided according to his financial situation, and to be awarded to the wife in case or divorce or the husband's death. The document stipulating these conditions was drawn up in the presence of two witnesses and became known as Ktubah.
In addition to the financial obligations the ketubah also specified the other obligations of the husband towards his wife in accordance with the Torah: He shall not diminish her food, her clothing and her conjugal rights. (Ex. 21:10)
According to Halachic law in case the ketubah is lost a new one must be written since a man is forbidden to live with his wife for even a single hour without a ketubah.
The language of the ketubah is Aramaic the Lingua Franca of the ancient Near East in the Talmudic period.
During the Middle Ages a unified fixed version still used today was developed in Ashkenazi communities which even specifies a predetermined sum as dowry. Among Sephardic communities the monetary considerations were of central interest and various stipulations were added to the fixed text. Though these diversions are minute they enlighten us about local customs and traditions. Similarly among Italian and Greek communities as well as among most of the Jewish communities in the Muslim and Oriental countries special fine points and details developed.
After the establishment of the State of Israel and the ensuing massive immigration waves the Chief Rabbinate decreed a unified and uniform version which disregarded the various different customs. In the USA however, the tendency is towards renewing the ancient text and modifying it to modern times. The desire to express in the ketubah modern views about women's social status gave rise to the emergence of new egalitarian versions stipulating equal obligations and privileges to both partners.
Ketubah Design and Decoration
Jewish artists have for hundreds of yea s illustrated ketubahs with decorations and paintings. As in the case of textual development here too early artistic traditions were combined with local artistic influences in each of the different sites. This fruitful mingling and infusion gave the decorated ketubah special style and characteristics which differed from community to community.
Influences of tradition on ketubah versions among the different communities.
The wording of the ketubah is ancient and remained fixed throughout the years with only minor changes. Some variations exist between the various communities but the basic details are common to all Jewish congregations.
It is fascinating to look into some of the differences reflecting the culture and customs peculiar to each community and the influences of the general milieu amid which the Jews lived in various locations all over the world.