The opening words of the Mishna (Ketubot 4:7) in today’s daf (Ketubot 51a), which speak of a case of לא כתב לה כתובה – ‘where [a groom] does not write a Ketubah [for his bride]’, prompted me to consider the origins of the word ‘Ketubah’ along with broader questions such as who is the primary beneficiary of the Ketubah, and how this is conveyed in practice.
To begin with, the word כתובה (Ketubah) is an extension of the word כתב (write). As such, the word ‘Ketubah’ simply means ‘that which is written’. However, as Rabb Arieh Leib Epstein explains in his ‘Toldot HaKetubah B’Yisrael’ (p. 3), notwithstanding the word כתובה being very generic, it is exclusively used in relation to marriage contracts or, more specifically, to the additional clauses written into marriage contracts relating to the specific obligations of a groom to his bride. As such, while the word ‘Ketubah’ is today used about a particular document which specifically lists all those clauses, its origins are specific clauses that were written into marriage documents.
As is repeatedly made clear throughout Massechet Ketubot, the Ketubah is something that the groom should give his bride, and it was established in order to provide financial provision to a woman in the case of divorce or widowhood. Notwithstanding this, as the Mishna in today’s daf explains, even if a Ketubah is not given the core obligations of the Ketubah, both in terms of the wife to the husband and that of the husband to the wife, are upheld (nb. for further details, see Rambam’s Hilchot Ishut 12:1-5). This is because, as is explained in the Mishnat Eretz Yisrael commentary to our Mishna (which, just FYI, is now available on Sefaria!), the establishment of the Ketubah is a rabbinic enactment for the public which means that its core obligations can be enforced even in its absence.
Having said all this, how is the Ketubah ‘given’? In all wedding ceremonies the bride is given the Ketubah under the chupah, and in many instances – although this is not absolutely required – the Ketubah is read at the time. However, one of the unspoken facts of traditional wedding ceremonies is that even when the Ketubah is read, all those present, including the bride and groom, are rarely fully focusing on the technicalities of the Ketubah – especially since the Ketubah is written in Aramic! So at what stage do a bride and groom review the obligations of a Ketubah?
If a bride and groom attend separate pre-wedding classes, it is generally (although incredibly not always) the case that the groom is taught about his Ketubah obligations, while a bride should also be taught about the implications of the Ketubah (although here too this unfortunately doesn’t always occur). Alternatively, if and when a bride and groom meet with the Rabbi who is to officiate at their wedding, the Rabbi should review the Ketubah with them.
However, there is one final point when the Ketubah is reviewed. It occurs just prior to the chuppah and involves the groom accepting the Ketubah obligations upon himself. This moment has halachic significance and, as such, two witnesses are required to sign the Ketubah in order to affirm that the groom has accepted its obligations upon himself.
In many weddings, especially in communities where it is customary for the bride not to see her groom before the chuppah, the bride is not present for this moment. However, especially at weddings of less observant couples where this custom is not practiced, the bride is invited to be present at this moment. And why? Because it provides an opportunity, just moments before the wedding, for a couple to reflect seriously on their wedding obligations.
Having recently observed and been a witness for three different weddings that were conducted by Tzohar rabbis (who volunteer to conduct weddings primarily for secular couples in Israel), and therefore having been privileged to witness this moment where, on two of the three occasions, the bride chose to be present at this moment, I can say that this practice changes the way a bride relates to her Ketubah. Rather than this being a document that her groom gives his bride oftentimes without an opportunity for them to review its particulars together, it becomes a document that they – together – understand as reflecting their respective obligations. And so when it comes to the giving of the Ketubah under the chuppah, both bride and groom are fully aware of what this is all about.
Earlier this week I attended one of the above-mentioned weddings. It was the marriage of David and Limor who are truly a magnificent couple and it was an absolute privilege to stand under their chuppah and witness them getting married. Yet what made it even more wonderful is the fact that, just minutes before the wedding, I had been present, with the officiating Rabbi, with them, and with their parents, as we reviewed the Ketubah, and from their interactions in this setting it was clear that not only are David and Limor deeply in love, but that they also understand the responsibilities of marriage.
Weddings are about celebration. But they are also about responsibility and obligation. As such, while a Jewish marriage ceremony involves a groom giving his bride her Ketubah, it is essential that they both fully understand what this means, and that opportunities are created to ensure that they do so.