A shifting perspective on the meaning of marriage changed the dowry’s meaning. Early dowries were presented to the wife’s family. Each family was an independent economical unit; marrying off a daughter meant losing a productive worker. Dowries softened the loss. In the Bible, Jacob worked a total of fourteen years to compensate his father-in-law Laban for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel.
Later on, when the new couple was no longer absorbed into the husband’s family clan, but set out on their own, the dowry’s use changed. The bride’s side contributed goods to furnish the new couple’s household. Lump sums and years of support eventually served as ways for families to entice sought after sons-in-law.
Traditional ketubah texts include a dowry clause: “Her belongings that she brought unto him (from her ___(usually, father’s) house), in silver, gold, valuables, wearing apparel, house furnishings, and bedclothes, all this _____, the said bridegroom, accepted in the sum of _____silver pieces” Dowry amounts were standardized to be worth 100 zekukim of silver to spare poor brides from the embarrassment of having their paltry dowries announced. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan equates the dowry to 500 silver dollars, which at $8.00 an ounce would be worth $4,000.)
Vestiges of the dowry remain in some modern weddings. In many contemporary weddings, the bride’s side still pays for the bulk of the ceremony and reception.