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The Ketubah: The Jewish Marriage Contract
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

How the Ketubah Came About
The ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, which spells out a husband’s obligations to his wife.

Judaism spells out three ways for a couple to marry with money (or something with monetary value), via contract or through sexual intercourse. To create a marriage, one of these three actions would take place – with the intent to marry. (Mishna, Kiddushin 1:1) Later rabbis withdrew sex as a marriage-making act, flogging anyone who established solely through sex.

In the first century, Rabbi Simon ben Shetach (c. 100 B.C.E.) fashioned the wording the ketubah to economically protect a woman in the event of divorce or widowhood. Safeguards were put in place to insure a woman would receive the ketubah settlement. Usually, the settlement money negotiated for the ketubah would be held by the wife’s father for safekeeping. Even if the husband had no money, he would be obligated to hand over something of value for his father-in-law to keep in escrow.

Divorce settlement costs were placed high enough to cause a husband to think twice before divorcing his wife. Berfore the ketubah was first instituted, wives could be dismissed by their husbands with a simple writ of divorcement. The ketubah was written so husbands “shall not regard it easy to divorce” their wives, according to the Talmud (Yebamot 89a).

The ketubah also stipulated a wife’s right to support, clothing and non-procreative sex. A husband’s obligation to pay for his wife’s medical and burial costs were included as well. The ketubah further assured a woman would leave a marriage with the dowry she brought to it, and the interest it earned.  Later, in the tenth century, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz (960-1028) fixed the pledges of support at a specific amount. Two hundred silver zuzim were promised; 100 zuzim would be paid to a woman at the end of a second marriage. This amount was enough in ancient times for a woman to invest and live off of the dividends. With a set amount of alimony stated, poor couples were thus spared embarrassment at the wedding ceremony when the ketubah was read aloud.


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