Language of the Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah)

At a recent Jewish wedding I attended, I was startled by the reading of the Jewish marriage contract because it was written in Hebrew rather than the traditional Aramaic text. After the ceremony I asked the rabbi who had conducted the service why the document was in Hebrew since Jewish practice, halakhah, required the Aramaic. He replied that there is no such halakhah.

Of course, being the stubborn cuss that I am, I had to check the sources and lo and behold, I found that he is correct, there is no such halakhah.This was a bit disconcerting to me since whenever I have discussed the ketubah in recent years, I have usually mentioned this apparently non-existent rule.

My knowledge of the customs of the ketubah is one of several topics that I owe to one brief stint of study with an Orthodox teacher, Rabbi Steven Roth, who was one of the last graduates of the Jews College of London. Let me hasten to say that I am not asserting he taught me incorrectly, I’m sure I just didn’t quite understand his teaching now some 50 years ago. And certainly, most of what I recall from that teaching is completely accurate.

While we’re on the subject of rules, we should acknowledge that there does not necessarily have to be a law for a practice to be considered mandatory. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the head covering, kippah or yarmulke that Jewish men wear especially when entering a synagogue or engaging in prayer. Many might be surprised to learn that nowhere do we find any written requirement for this practice, and yet try to find an Orthodox or Conservative congregation which does not insist on it. In its early decades, one way Reform congregations demonstrated their difference from tradition was by discouraging the kippah in synagogue, but in more recent times, congregations have returned to the practice of encouraging it.

While there is no documented halakhah demanding that the ketubah be written in Aramaic, you’d be hard pressed to find any ketubot written in any other language until recent decades. The standard terminology is recorded in various sources, always in Aramaic. And the Talmud explains the use of Aramaic in the following way: Since this is a document which is intended to protect the rights of the wife in a marriage, it is very important that it be written in the language the wife will understand. And in the period and place where this conversation took place, Aramaic was the lingua franca, the common tongue.

In recent decades, there has been a change, but it’s a change that I think reflects a certain sensibility that is remote from the question of the marriage document itself. Part of the reason for this is that the ketubah simply does not mean what it once did to Jewish women. There are other mechanisms which are far more important in protecting the well-being of marriage partners in most of the Jewish world than the ketubah. For this reason, the ketubah has become more of an objet d’art than an actual contract.

The ketubah was written in Aramaic because that was the language a woman could understand in the places and times where the ketubah was developed, and Hebrew was a language which most women did not understand. But today, a Jewish woman is more likely to understand Hebrew than Aramaic. Beyond that, the spread and importance of Zionism has led to a new focus on Hebrew as the central language of all Jews. It is therefore understandable that especially in non-Orthodox settings, we are seeing a proliferation of ketubot written in Hebrew.

But there is a strong irony in what has happened. If we understand the spirit that motivated those who created the ketubah, if we are not going to write it in Aramaic, then we should be writing it in the language the wife (or partner) knows best–the language of the land. In America, most ketubot should therefore be written in English if they are not going to be written in Aramaic since, after all, even a knowledgeable person will understand their native language better than Hebrew. Paleo-Hebrew alphabet - Wikipedia

There is at least one cultural reason to suggest why this is unnecessary and Hebrew versions might be acceptable in many Jewish communities. That is if we understand that the ketubah is no longer considered an important part of the legal protections for the wife. If the ketubah is merely ceremonial, then it no longer matters whether the woman can understand it or not. And Hebrew is certainly as good as Aramaic for creating art work. There is one more irony to this story, however. In fact, the alphabet (alef-bet) used to create Hebrew writing today is not, in fact, Hebrew, but rather Aramaic writing–brought back from Aramaic speaking lands by the Judeans returning from Exile. So I guess Aramaic gets the last laugh.

3 thoughts on “Language of the Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah)

  1. Interesting piece, Jack. I have to thank you for pointing out to me that it is not very difficult to read the ancient Hebrew letters. I recently in Shul and there was a Bencher from a wedding with a sentence in that ancient Hebrew lettering. Several of us sat trying to read it before realizing it was Od Yishama.

  2. Thanks, Jack. Interesting. Similar reason for saying Kadish in Aramaic, as I am told.

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