September 11, 2022

Ketubot 59

Among the various reasons for tension and strife in a marriage is ‘expectations’, and specifically, where the expectations of one is not fulfilled by the other. This is why one of the most important things for a couple to do is to be clear with each other about their respective expectations.
Undoubtedly, one of the purposes of the Ketubah is to achieve this clarity. Nevertheless, not everything that is expected in a marriage is explicit in a ketubah – which is why the Mishna (Ketubot 5:5) in today’s daf (Ketubot 59b) lists seven tasks that, though not explicitly stated in the ketubah, are understood to fall within the remit of a wife in a marriage.
Before proceeding, I would like to say something about language, because while the Mishna uses the words ואלו המלאכות שהאשה עושה – ‘and these are the activities that a woman does’, this is generally translated (eg. Soncino, Artscroll, Steinsaltz) as, ‘and these are the tasks that a wife MUST perform’ (emphasis mine). Admittedly, the context of this discussion is marital obligations – so it is understandable why the word ‘must’ is used. At the same time, and as the Mishna proceeds to explain, if a woman brings one or more maidservants into the marriage (or nowadays we may explain this to mean that if the couple can afford some home help), then many of these tasks wouldn’t be those that ‘a wife must perform’. In fact, when codifying this halacha, the Rambam (Ishut 21:5) is clear that these tasks are only obligatory on the woman if the couple are עניים (poor) and cannot outsource them to others.
The problem, however, is that when absolute language (eg. ‘must’) is used when translating texts, even though the Mishna then proceeds to detail the situations when these tasks are not absolutely obliged of a wife, it can lead people – and in this case, men – to be insistent that these are things that a wife ‘must’ do – even if there is no basis for such a claim. Simply put, a Mishna whose purpose is to crystalize expectations can unfortunately be understood in a way that actually causes greater misunderstanding and, in some situations, even cause tension and strife in a marriage.
Given this, I would like to say something simple to soon to be married and already married men: ‘while there may be things that you think your wife ‘must’ do, you may be wrong.’ So rather than getting confused or frustrated when your expectations aren’t met, please find an opportunity to talk with your wife – about her expectations of you, and your expectations of her, of what you choose to do for each other, and of what you choose to outsource. Doing so will save much heartache, and will likely help make your marriage both smoother, and stronger.
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