What is the Ketubah or Marriage Contract?

In Judaism, marriage is sacred. It facilitates the deepest physical and spiritual bond that two people can experience. It’s an ideal but Judaism is also aware that humans are flawed, hence a marriage can be too. So the Rabbis made a “just in case plan”- the marriage contract or “Ketubah”.

The Ketubah is a legal document signed by two witnesses (unrelated to the bride or groom), who testify that the husband will fulfill his duties to his wife during the marriage and in the case of divorce.

It is such an important document that every word must be perfect and a couple must always know where the Ketubah is located and have it close by.

In Judaism, when a man marries, he must abide by the obligations that go along with it- to financially support, feed, clothe, and sexually satisfy his wife, failing which are grounds for divorce. If the marriage dissolves, the husband will be responsible to provide for her as stipulated in the Ketubah.

The Ketubah may seem unromantic, being that on the happiest day of a couple’s life they are reminded of the possibility of divorce. But this contract serves a very specific purpose- to protect the woman.

The Ketubah dates back thousands of years (the oldest surviving Ketubah is from 440 BC, written on papyrus) to a time when women were dependent on their husbands to provide the basic necessities of life- shelter, food, intimacy, etc. Back then when a couple decided to go their separate ways, a woman could find herself in a very vulnerable situation. So, the husband is required to financially compensate his wife and guarantee her right to security following the divorce. The Ketubah is also a precautionary measure to make a couple think twice before rushing to divorce mindlessly and stop a man from being able to easily discard his marriage.

Now, the language of the Ketubah is curious because it isn’t written in Hebrew but in another ancient language,  Aramaic. Though Hebrew is the foremost language of Jewish people, Aramaic was also spoken for a period of time. Hebrew was considered the original “holy tongue” and mainly studied and used for prayer, not spoken by Jews while in exile from Israel for thousands of years. Commentaries and explanations on the holy texts of Torah were therefore written in Aramaic, which makes sense for the Ketubah, being that it is a practical, legal contract conceived by the Rabbis.

The other reason is to protect us from the angels.

The Midrash explains. The angels can have the ability to speak every language except Aramaic.

Before God gave the Torah, the angels protested saying that humans could not be entrusted with such holiness and that it should remain in the heavens. God disagreed and assured the angels that the Jewish men would take the time to study Torah and brought it down to earth.

But, the Ketubah compels a man to “work, honor, feed and support you (his wife) in the custom of Jewish men, who work, honor, feed, and support their wives faithfully.”

That doesn’t sound like a lot of time left to learn Torah. But in Judaism, the work put into a marriage takes priority. So, in order to not alert the angels that the men are shifting focus from Torah to their wives, the Ketubah is written in a language they wouldn’t understand. Because the love, work and time put into a marriage is a purely human experience and the top priority.

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