The Ketubah: Marriage as Commitment and Responsibility

If I were to ask you what is the most memorable part of a wedding ceremony, I doubt that most of you would have said the reading of the Ketubah. After all, it is in a language we no longer speak (Aramaic) and contains legal terminology, rather than the words of love. Certainly more memorable parts are the processional, the 7 circles, the giving of the rings, the Sheva Berachot, the breaking of the glass. However, the Ketubah is one of the few parts of the wedding ceremony that has its root in this very Torah portion.

In reading Parshat Mishpatim, we see so many of the basic laws necessary for society to function. While some do not appear to apply to us today, others are more relevant than ever. Two of them have to do with marriage. Exodus Chapter 22 Verse 15 put limits on a man taking a woman as his own. It states “he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price.” The bride-price (מהר) is not specified here, but the rabbis made it at 200 zuz for a previously unmarried woman. While some are offended by this, as how can we put a price on a person, the way I interpret it is that betrothing someone requires providing something of value, the same way that men buy engagement rings today. By providing something of value, one demonstrates that marriage is not something to be taken lightly but rather a commitment and investment in one’s future. It also was a means to guarantee that women, who in biblical times were unable to make a living on their own, will have monetary protection in the event that the marriage is dissolved.

This is not the only source from our Torah portion that focuses on marriage. In Exodus Chapter 21 verse 10, it states that when a man marries a second time (a practice not allowed in Ashkenazi Judaism for over 1,000 years), he cannot withhold from his first wife ועונתה שארה כסותה, translated in our Chumash as food, clothing or conjugal rights. If he does not provide these three things, the wife can leave him. Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 47b states that שארה refers to maintenance, namely in a man providing sustenance for his wife. כסותה refers to clothing. עונתה is the most difficult of the terms to understand. The Talmud understands it as conjugal rights, but Ibn Ezra provides an opinion that it is referring to dwelling places.

Interestingly Mishnah Ketubot Chapter 5 puts the requirement of conjugal rights on both parties, stating that if the husband does not do so for his wife, he has to add to her Ketubah, whereas if the wife “rebels” against her husband money is subtracted from her Ketubah.

As we now live in a very different age, how do we relate to these sections from our portion? The Ketubah is not a legally binding document-it cannot be brought to a US court for payment of 200 zuz. More importantly, we view men and women as equal partners in a marriage, not as the husband needing to provide everything for his wife. The connection is not in what these texts say per se but rather in what they signify. The Ketubah states that in marriage there is obligation between husband and wife. It is not enough to say platitudes such as “We love each other unconditionally” or “I will be true to you forever.” Actions speak louder than words. Commitments entail responsibility on the part of both partners. To marry someone without providing for their needs is not truly a marriage according to our tradition.

Matthew and Dafna-my blessing for you as you approach your wedding is to remember to always provide for one another, physically, emotionally and spiritually as well as economically. I hope that you will remember to always show your affection to one another through actions that demonstrate your love and commitment. In doing so, may you be able to fulfill the blessing that we say every morning: שעשה לי כל צרכי, that all of your needs have been fulfilled. Mazal Tov on your upcoming wedding! May your love for one another cause your faces to radiate with joy each and every day as רעים אהובים, loving companions. In order to crystallize the happiness of reaching this occasion, I’d like to ask us to turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

Truly Hearing Others


We are a people who believes in hearkening, or listening,[2] but only when it leads to action. After all, the phrase that has been called by some “the watchword of our faith,” the last words one is supposed to say every day and at the end of one’s life, is שמע ישראל, “Hear O Israel.” However, it is not enough to merely hearken; rather we need to translate that listening into action, as demonstrated by the ואהבת, which illustrates all the ways we must communicate our knowledge of G-d to future generations. After all, one of the reasons our people was chosen to receive the Torah is because we said נעשה ונשמע,[3] that doing is primary before listening.[4]

The first chapter of Parshat Yitro centers on this theme of hearkening. It begins וישמע יתרו, Yitro heard of all that G-d had done for Moses.[5] Yitro praises the Adonai, the G-d of the Israelites, for saving Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, saying that He is greater than all other gods. Afterwards, he notices Moses’ behavior in being the sole judge and jury of all of Israel. Yitro advises him to appoint other judges so that Moses does not get burnt out. After giving this advice, the text reads וישמע משה לקול חתנו, Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law.[6]

The commentators raise two central questions regarding this passage: why didn’t Moses think of Yitro’s approach on his own and why did the advice come from Yitro rather than directly from G-d? Toledot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo, asserts that Moses thought of delegating but wanted it to come from a disinterested third party. Why? So the Israelites would not think that Moses was shirking his responsibilities![7] When someone does more that his/her fair share, it can be taken for granted, or worse, it can become public perception that this is part of his/her job description. So that it did not appear that Moses was “cutting back,” leading the rumor mills to start, it was best that a foreigner make the suggestion.

Ralbag, or Gersonides, has a very different answer. He asserts that Moses, as great a teacher as he was, did not think of delegating the judiciary. Only after hearing Yitro’s advice did he recognize that Yitro’s approach was better, and he followed it.[8] As great as Moses was, he did not have all the answers, and he acknowledged that Yitro was correct. The mark of a great leader is to know when to take hold of the advice of others versus when to disregard it; in this case, Moses recognized the benefit from Yitro’s advice, and he took hold of it.

The second question, as to why the advice came directly from Yitro rather than from G-d, is of interest to commentators, especially as the verse concludes ויעש כל אשר אמר, that Moses did everything that Yitro said.[9] This is often the language used to demonstrate obedience to G-d’s command, yet here it is being used to demonstrate that Moses took Yitro’s advice! Tzror HaMor comments that the words of Yitro really came from G-d. Why then didn’t G-d tell Moses directly? So that the Israelites would be aware of Yitro’s wisdom and that for this reason Moses married his daughter.[10] In the traditional Mi Sheberach for a baby naming, we pray that the baby girl marries a Torah scholar; here we show that Yitro, while not a Torah scholar, was not a נאך-שלעפער noch-shlepper, but rather a man of wisdom like Moses.

Or HaHayim goes one step further, asserting that G-d wanted to show Israel that there are among non-Jews great giants of understanding and insight.[11] Our tradition has always mentioned that there are non-Jews of great knowledge and abilities. There is even a blessing for an outstanding secular scholar, ברוך…שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ואדם, blessed is G-d who has given of His knowledge to human beings.[12]

Two lessons come to mind from Yitro hearkening to G-d followed by Moses hearkening to Yitro. The first is that true listening leads to changed behavior. If someone gives us worthwhile advice and we listen to it but don’t change our behavior, it has made no impact on us. The words come into one ear and go out the other. If, on the other hand, we listen carefully to what they’re saying, discern it for deeper truths, and make a change in our lives for our betterment, we have truly heard them.

The second lesson is that we can find words of wisdom from everyone, whether Jewish or not. As a rabbi, I would argue that we should first turn to the great wealth of our tradition, the words of the Torah, the Talmud and the great rabbis. However, that does not mean that we cannot find similar pearls of wisdom from non-Jewish sources. Plus who knows-maybe G-d is communicating to us through this non-traditional medium as well.

Let us strive this week to actually listen to the words given by the people who we encounter and determine if they have merit. In the end we might choose to disregard them, but at least we should hearken to them with both ears open and with serious intention. May we truly hearken to the words of others and take their advice whenever practical and helpful.

[1] From School of Rock’s If Only You Would Listen

[2] For this sermon I will use the two words synonymously

[3] Exodus 24:7

[4] Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Section HaHodesh, Chapter 5.

[5] Exodus 19:1

[6] Exodus 18:24

[7] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 18:21 ואתה תחזה מכל העם אנשי חיל…

[8] Ralbag on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה…התועלת הי”ד

[9] Exodus 18:24

[10] Tzror Hamor on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[11] Or HAHayim on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[12] Found in The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Page 236.

The Power of Tefillan


Usually on Shabbat I talk about something practical to everyday life. However, today I want to discuss something that is not used on Shabbat but rather during the week: Tefillan. Tefillan represent the power of our covenantal relationship with G-d. When we bind them on our hands and put them on our forehead, we demonstrate that we are accepting the responsibility of fulfilling the commandments and of being G-d’s emissaries in the world.

Why don’t we wear Tefillan on Shabbat? Because they are described as a sign, (an אות) of G-d’s presence.[1] During the week, when weget preoccupied with our jobs or our regular schedules, we need this sign to center us and keep us on the proper path. However, on Shabbat, when we cease from working and enjoy festive prayer services and meals with our families, we do not need that outward sign, and so therefore we refrain from wearing Tefillan.

The Tefillan contains four passages from the Torah, which if you want to study them in greater detail you are welcome to attend the World Wide Wrap tomorrow morning at 9:00 am. The latter two passages are in what we now consider to be the שמע: the ואהבת (about loving G-d and teaching our children the commandments) and והיה אם שמוע (about fulfilling G-d’s commands so that we have rain in its proper season). The former two come from this morning’s parsha, where we first learn that Tefillan is worn as connected with our ancestors’ being redeemed from Egypt. Because they were saved by G-d, they (and we) are required to eat unleavened bread for seven days as well as redeem our firstborn children and animals.

There’s an additional aspect to Tefillan, however; the covenantal relationship between the people of Israel and G-d. We as Israel need a daily reminder to follow the commandments, but G-d also needs a reminder about the unique nature of the children of Israel. In Talmud Berachot[2], the rabbis ask “What’s inside G-d’s tefillan?” and the answer is the verse מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ; “Who is like the people Israel, a unique nation on earth.”[3] G-d also needs a reminder of the special nature of our people: that we were the only people who agreed to accept His commandments.[4]

The relationship between G-d and Israel is highlighted every morning when we do the last three wraps on the arm Tefillan. We recite a special phrase from Isaiah: וארשתיך לי לעולם, וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים, וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ה; “I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me in justice and righteousness, lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know G-d.”[5] Every morning, we reaffirm our covenant with G-d to be better people, devoting ourselves to doing acts of lovingkindness while concurrently incorporating Jewish rituals such as prayer, kashrut and Shabbat into our lives. At the same time, we recognize that we are unique and should take pride in who we are and what we contribute to the world. G-d is with us, guiding us on how to make our lives better each and every day.

The wearing of Tefillan bolsters our faith in G-d and in our work as the Jewish people. I encourage anyone here who has not put on Tefillan to do so tomorrow morning at minyan. We have plenty of extra sets in the Beit Midrash for you to use. With Tefillan, we reenact our betrothal to G-d every morning, demonstrating our devotion and faith to Judaism. Through saying the passage from Hosea, we betroth ourselves to G-d anew each and every morning. In a similar vein, we have a betrothed couple, Justin and Rachel, who will be getting married next weekend. Under the Huppah, there will be a betrothal ceremony with an exchange of rings. In addition to this, I always like to encourage couples to write their own betrothals (or if you want to call them, vows) to one another: what you love about your partner and how you will devote yourself to your partner in marriage. Write it up, let the other know after the ceremony, and refer back to it on a regular basis after the wedding. This way your dedication to your partner will always remain on the forefront of your mind, just as the words inside the Tefillan reposition G-d to the center of our lives.

Mazal Tov, Justin and Rachel, on your Aufruf and upcoming marriage. To crystallize our happiness for you through words, I ask that we turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

[1] Exodus 13:9

[2] Berachot 6a

[3] 2 Samuel 7:23

[4] See Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael Chapter 5

[5] Hosea 2:21