The Decorated Contract


‘And here is our ketubah…”

Displayed proudly and prominently on the wall of a living room or bedroom in many a contemporary couple’s home, the ketubah—the marriage certificate—has become a mainstay of Jewish décor, a proud symbol both of the couple’s Jewish identity and of their bond with one another. And indeed, in modern, egalitarian contexts, the ketubah betokens mutuality and reciprocity.

But in achieving this mutuality, one of the very few, relatively small “women’s corners“ of pre-modern Jewish visual culture has been somewhat lost in translation. Traditionally, the ketubah was a document written for the woman in a marriage partnership. She was the subject, the document outlined the property brought into the marriage by the husband, and described his responsibilities to her in the event of the dissolution of the marriage or of his death. By making the ketubah mutual and egalitarian—a condition on which most postmodern, non-Orthodox Jews quite understandably stand their ground—the idea that the ketubah is a specifically woman-oriented religious object is necessarily compromised.

The ketubah is one of the first documents in history to protect the rights of a woman in marriage. In typical rabbinic fashion, it mediated between the idea of “acquiring” a woman by means of a gift of property and “possessing” her sexually. (In fact, vestiges of all three modes of contracting a marriage were maintained in the rabbinic wedding ceremony—a ring was given, the ketubah was witnessed and given to the bride, and the couple was secluded together to testify to their exclusive sexual right to each other.) Traditionally, the ketubah served to ensure that having been subject to father and husband, should her marriage terminate, a woman would have a modicum of financial independence. Less a contract than a note of obligation from husband to wife, the document was traditionally the province and the possession of the woman.

So, while it is accurate to state that the ketubah is a legal document, I know of no examples of illustrated land deeds or illuminated wills. The ketubah is unique in that it is a site of visual culture, an object that is both functional and beautiful. Nowadays, just as the text of the document may testify to the mutual aspirations and the self-presentation of the commissioning couple, the ketubah can be a reflection of their mutual artistic taste. But the question of whose taste the ketubah represented in previous ages is an interesting one. Since the document was a gift from the husband to his wife-to-be, it might reflect his taste. However, the fact that it was decorated at all was presumably intended to please and delight the bride, so we might see in it some reflection of what appealed to particular women, or minimally, what men thought women would like.

The decoration of ketubot was extremely diverse. The text was traditionally written in a central block, in calligraphy script. Floral patterns, sometimes ornamented with birds or insects, were favorites. Occasionally, ketubah decoration was quasi-architectural, with pillars recalling the supports of the marriage canopy or a panoramic cityscape representing the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, sometimes with Elijah the Prophet leading the Messiah into its gates for the ultimate redemption.

Various local customs existed with regard to ornamentation—a bouquet with a large central rose decorated Gibraltar ketubot, recalling the rose mentioned in the Song of Songs, the quintessence of biblical romantic poetry. Less romantic than whimsical were the paired fish on some Indian ketubot, symbolic of fertility (per Genesis 1:22 and 48:16). Ketubot from the city of Isfahan in Persia were characteristically illuminated with opposing lions and a central rising sun with a benevolent human countenance. The Aramaic word for Torah, orayta, is spelled identically, but for a single letter transposed, to the word for “a pair of lions,” aryavayta. So these lions represent Torah, while the sun is the sun of righteousness of Micah 4:2. Thus, we have the symbols of two of the three blessings given every child at the moment he or she receives a Hebrew name—the blessings of learning (Torah) and of righteousness (Ma’asim Tovim). The third blessing, that of committed relationship (Chupah), is signaled by the totality of the document itself and by the ceremony in which it plays its part.

Italian ketubot of the baroque period can be lavish. There are particular regional variations, such as ketubot from Rome where the bottom margin forms a triangular flap, recalling legal documents to which a ribbon and seals might be affixed. In the case of ketubot, the form is vestigial—the “seals” of the ketubah are the signatures of the witnesses, and thus, neither ribbon nor seals are necessary but the “flap” remains to remind us that this is a legal document. In many ketubot of this period from Rome, Venice, Manuta or smaller cities and towns, broad swaths of decoration surrounding the text are populated with the signs of the Zodiac, a motif in use by Jews since antiquity, reflecting the constancy of love throughout the seasons, which themselves may be personified by female figures. Various marital virtues—constancy, fortitude and mutuality—are also signified by human figures in some Italian ketubot. All these are obviously “secular” themes, reflections of popular love and marriage motifs. But at the same time they reflect the complete comfort felt by these Jews, who lived in complete aesthetic (if not political and social) harmony with their surroundings. On rarer occasions, like the case of some 18th-century ketubot from the Spanish and Portuguese community of Amsterdam, which come with decorations by the famous artist Shalom D’Italia pre-engraved on parchment surrounding a blank space for the document, we see, among the floral and insect motifs, a pair of stylish, elegant couples stepping out, looking for all the world like a pair of well-to-do Amsterdam Protestant merchants. Accurate or not, this enables us to get a fascinating glimpse of how such Jews as those who used these ketubah “blanks” viewed themselves.

My favorite ketubot are those with a slight air of mystery—the beautifully lettered ketubot from Meshed, Persia, which reflect the way some Jews lived due to persecution. Publicly they were Muslims, but internally, they remained loyal to the Torah of Moses, and so these brilliant blue, green and gold ketubot appear on the outside to be Islamic marriage documents, but inside, contain the Aramaic text. I like to puzzle out the names of bride and groom purely on the basis of the biblical motifs in the cartouches adorning many Italian and Dutch ketubot—Jacob’s stairway to heaven or Rebecca watering the camels.

The earliest surviving illuminated ketubah, made in Krems, Austria, in 1392, depicts a Jewish man, bearded and wearing a peaked “Jewish hat” reaching over the text to hand a large ring to a crowned woman who receives it. The figures bend towards each other across the space so as to form an arch with their bodies, and their attenuated forms are slightly otherworldly. Do they represent a “real” couple? On one level, certainly. But on another, the woman’s crown attests to the fact that they are also symbolic: they may be meant to refer to God and Israel or Israel and Torah, or some combination of abstract elements.

Marc Michael Epstein is professor of religion and Jewish studies at Vassar College and the author of “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature” (Penn State Press, 1997). His forthcoming book is titled “The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination” (Yale University Press, Passover 2011). Epstein was director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby’s Judaica department.

In the end, the ketubah, like much else in Jewish tradition, has stood the test of time in a remarkable way, maintaining its essence even as it shifts and morphs to encompass new circumstances. But its essence—the sense of obligation and responsibility, ornamented by love and trust, remains consistent.