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.

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