Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jewish Traditions in a Nutshell: The Ketubah and the Get

The New York Times had an article last Friday about non-Jews using ketubot (also Englishized by us English speakers as ketubahs) as part of their wedding ceremony: Christians Embrace a Jewish Wedding Tradition. (You may have to create a NYT account to view older stories.) This definitely goes in my "least expected national news stories of the year" file.

So what's the ketubah? It's basically the original pre-nup! And it is one of the earliest "feminist" documents, if you ask me.  It's a contract between a husband and wife that becomes effective upon marriage. However, the wife is not agreeing to anything other than marrying the husband. The entire agreement is what the husband will do for his wife, both during the marriage and upon a divorce.

There is a traditional text, but today there are many variations, both orthodox and liberal. Generally, the husband agrees to provide his wife with food, clothing, shelter, and fulfill her sexual needs. Yes, you read that last part right! There's that feminist element, written a couple thousand years ago (two thousand? Three?). It also lists her alimony rights in case of divorce, etc.

A recent (Facebook-powered?) movement is encouraging the use of particular language in all ketubahs that will legally (in the local courthouse sense) require the husband to provide a "get" (the "e" is pronounced "eh" like in "meh.") to the wife. So what's a get? It's a Jewish divorce, which happens to be a paper, much like the ketubah. You go before a beit din, and the beit din can even decide property and child issues if the parties wish. If the parties agree, a get decree can even be submitted to civil courts as the basis of a civil divorce. Most people, however, do the civil divorce and the Jewish get as totally separate "legal" proceedings. Note that one proceeding doesn't rely on the other, so you can get them in any order or even only one. (I do know of people with a get but no civil divorce.) However, if the wife does not get a get (practice your pronunciation!), she cannot remarry Jewishly. Civilly, yes she may remarry, but orthodox and conservative rabbis (and some reform, I'm told) will not officiate at a Jewish remarriage without a get. (A get does not apply if the woman was previously married to a non-Jew.)

And yes, the husband is always the one who "provides" the get to the wife, just as he "provides" the ketubah. Notably, even the Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA) has "adopted a resolution insisting that no member Rabbi officiate at a wedding unless a proper prenuptial agreement on get has been executed." The Conservative movement actually spearheaded this idea with the "Lieberman clause" in 1953. It's gaining speed in the orthodox community today. Personally, you can bet money that I'll have get language in my ketubah! Working in divorce law probably influences that a wee bit, but you should all do it regardless.

So why is there a Facebook movement about gets? Here's a controversy lesson for you: men are refusing to provide gets to their wives as a way to extort concessions in civil divorce proceedings (especially "Your alimony or your get"), as a form of emotional abuse, and/or as a way to get "revenge." How do these groups affect change in these very personal relationships? They encourage shunning the husbands. That's right: shtetle politics at its finest! But no lie, it works. It's effective. And it's gaining momentum.

For more information on "get" language, go to The Prenup. If the controversy of Jewish divorce interests you, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) is fighting for more peaceful and fair Jewish divorces. If you want some entertainment, check out my absolute favorite Jewish punk song/video: Get by the faked punk band the Groggers, which is apparently now a real punk band thanks to the popularity of this song.

Obviously, being single, I don't have a ketubah. As much as I love mezuzot, the ketubah feels very similar to me. It helps that they can be extremely pretty. You can bet, G-dwilling, that ketubah is getting framed and hung on my wall! And it will be the prettiest ketubah you ever saw.

Practical note: If you're going to frame your ketubah, remember to make a full-size, color photocopy and place it in a safe deposit box at the bank along with your conversion documents!


  1. Regarding the color photocopy version, that can be difficult with enormous ketubahs. However, I am told that you also receive a traditional 8x11 size paper ketubah. According to some interpretations of halacha, having a ketubah with you is a requirement to have sex and other marital things! Not in bed with you of course, but on vacation or in other homes, you should have a copy of the ketubah with you in your bags, apparently. This is what I was taught, so I don't know how strict that really is. :P

  2. It must be emphasized how extremely important it is for any Jewish woman to get a get upon her divorced. If she had an orthodox wedding, and only has a civil divorce, and then re-marries and has children with the second husband, those children are mamzerim, and can never marry. (Well, they can marry other mamzerim.)
    Even if she had a conservative or reform wedding ceremony, she should still get a get. It's true that Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that in the case of a conservative wedding ceremony followed by no get followed by marriage to another man and children, we don't consider the children mamzerim because we say the original wedding ceremony doesn't count. But it's a radical teshuva, and receiving a get prevents you from having to rely on it.

  3. It's interesting to learn that Ketubah is like a marriage of love and fine art wherein every detail can be a symbol that has its own meaning. Because of its ancient and venerable history, Ketubah has its place as an important form of Jewish ceremonial art throughout time.

  4. Interesting. Of all the Jewish wedding traditions, the Ketubah was the last on the list I would have thought my fellow Christians would adopt (especially those with no Jewish ancestry to speak of). My personal favorites are the parents (plural) escorting the bride and groom - it's so honoring of the vital, formative role that BOTH parents play in the lives of their children. It's definitely something I plan to incorporate whether I convert before marriage or not. The other is the chuppa - which I LOVE - not only for the aesthetics (which are lovely) but for the symbolism of the home and service to God. Anyway, and interesting story!