Introduction to Ketubot

Introduction to Ketubot


Perhaps the most famous of all Jewish documents is the ketubah.  In modern times people buy for themselves fancy decorated Ketubot, hang them up on their walls and are (hopefully) reminded of the positive Jewish aspects of their marriage.  Ketubot are today largely symbolic.

In the time of the Mishnah, the ketubah was a real marriage contract, written in Aramaic (the language of commerce at the time) and it outlined the husband’s and wife’s financial responsibilities to one another.  Indeed the ketubah had little that was strictly “Jewish” about it, and many of the neighboring peoples used similar types of marriage documents.  Furthermore, the idea of a marriage contract is ancient and certainly predates even the Bible.  The earliest Israelite Ketubot that archaeologists have found are from Elephantine, an Israelite military colony in northern Egypt in the 5th century B.C.E.  The language of these Ketubot is remarkably similar to the language found in the Ketubot mentioned in the Mishnah and the ketubah that we still use today. 

Besides referring to the document, the word ketubah can also refer to the minimum marriage payment that a husband (or his estate) owes his wife upon death or divorce.  For a first-time marriage (a woman assumed to be a virgin), the payment is 200 dinar/zuz and for a widow or divorcee the payment is 100 dinar/zuz.  This amount correlates to the bridal price of 50 shekels (1 shekel=4 dinar) mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (see also Exodus 22:15-16).  The word ketubah can also occasionally refer to the dowry brought into the marriage by the wife.  Our tractate discusses dowries as well. 

While learning this tractate it is important to remember that the understanding of marriage and the shared responsibilities of a husband and wife have changed over the past 2000 years (and especially over the last century).  In the time of the Mishnah husbands were the primary earners in the family and a woman’s place was more typically, although not exclusively, around the home. 

In my opinion, throughout history Jewish marital law largely reflects the outside societies understanding of marriage.  For instance, in Islamic lands, where Muslims married more than one women, Jews continued to practice bigamy until modern times.  In Christian countries, where bigamy was prohibited to Christians, Jews ceased practicing bigamy around the year 1000.  Of course, there are limits to Jewish absorption of non-Jewish customs (adultery could never be tolerated), but to a large extent the financial arrangements in Jewish marriage reflect the financial arrangements customary in non-Jewish marriages.  Therefore, in our society, where men and women increasingly share equally as breadwinners and caretakers, I personally believe that Jewish law can and should reflect these arrangements.  However, that is my personal opinion, an opinion that will not be reflected in the mishnayoth themselves.

Ketubot is one of the most learned tractates of Talmud in traditional yeshivot for it contains many principles useful in other areas of law.  It will be a challenging tractate, but one that I am sure you will all enjoy.