Introduction to the JNUL Ketubbah Collection

The Collection of Ketubbot (marriage contracts) in the Jewish National and University Library numbers 1600 items (as of October 2008).  It includes original ketubbot from Jewish communities around the world, handwritten as well as printed (among them blank forms). 

The earliest ketubbah in the Collection is from Eretz Israel and dates from 1024; it was preserved in the Cairo Geniza.  The most recent is from Jerusalem in the year 2000.  

Especially noteworthy is a collection of 226 illuminated ketubbot from Italy, which was received in 1945 from the estate of Mordechai ben David Hamitzer, and also a ketubbah fragment from Segura, Spain, written only a few years before the Expulsion.

The term “ketubbah” is mentioned in the Mishna (Baba Batra 10:4).  Marriage contracts are the earliest written agreements to survive until the present.  Even the marriage contract written in Aramaic on papyrus during the reign of Artaxerses, King of Persia, in the fifth century BCE (see A. Cowley,  Oxford Aramaic Papyri, no. 15) bears a strong resemblance to later ketubbot, which are also written in Aramaic until the present day.

The purpose of the marriage contract is to regulate the legal and financial relations of husband and wife.  On the husband’s side:  the Ketubbah proper and amendments; on the wife’s side: the dowry, whose parts include usufruct (melog) and mortmain (tzon barzel).  Besides these, the ketubbah often includes additional “Terms of the Ketubbah”, designed to secure the rights of the wife during marriage and afterwards.

The most widespread terms of ketubbah are:

  • Regarding inheritance in the event that one spouse dies without leaving surviving offspring.
  • In places where a man was permitted to take several wives, the ketubbah determined that he could not take another wife while the present wife was still married to him, unless she consented or until ten years had passed and they still had no offspring.
  • In many places they were concerned lest the husband die childless and his widow be dependent on release from marriage with one of his brothers.  The husband therefore gave his wife a conditional “get” (bill of divorce) as well as a ketubbah, and a clause was introduced into the ketubbah whereby the get would become effective an hour before the husband’s death. In Poland and Ashkenaz an additional bill was occasionally written at the time of the wedding, obligating the grooms’ brothers to release the bride from Levirate marriage.
  • A wife can waive her rights, as fixed in the ketubbah, but in order to protect her rights a clause might be added that she not appease her husband nor he compel her to waive or sell her ketubbah for his benefit.  If she does so, her act is null and void.
The “Additions to the Ketubbah” is the bonus that the groom gives to the bride above and beyond the sum stated in the ketubbah (200 zuz for a virgin, 100 zuz for a widow or divorcee).

As mentioned above, the Collection includes ketubbot from many Jewish communities.  Sometimes a ketubbah provides the only sure evidence for the existence of a Jewish community.  And, inasmuch as the ketubbah is a legal document in every regard, financial agreements included, it also offers historical evidence of the Jews’ socio-economic status in various times and places.

Despite the uniformity of the text of the ketubbah proper, special local customs developed in different regions.   From the Second Temple period onwards, ketubbot were dated by minyan shtarot, the counting of years since the founding of the Seleucid monarchy (312/311 BCE).  This custom continued for many years throughout the East, and in Yemen down to the present time. In North Africa and Yemen, an added obligation was given to the groom, not to make his wife move against her will from one city to another in the same country.  If he wished to move away from the city, against her wishes, he was obligated to give her a bill of divorce and to pay the value of her ketubbah.  Likewise, some ketubbot have an additional, explicit obligation on the wife’s part, to care for her husband’s children from earlier marriages as if they were her own.

In some ketubbot from Syria and Eretz Israel, there is a clause barring the husband from going on distant journeys without leaving his wife a conditional get (bill of divorce), to spare her the status of abandoned wife (agunah), which could bar her from remarrying.
In Salonika, the custom was not to process divorce without the full consent of the wife and one of her relatives.

Several ketubbot from Italy and the Portuguese community in Amsterdam, whether in the ketubbah proper or in one of its addenda, testify to agreement before a civil notary, mentioned by name. 

Ketubbot of the Romaniot communities in Greece, e.g. Ioannina, differ in two aspects from the Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Oriental types:

  1. The date counts the years since Creation and since destruction of the Second Temple, as well.
  2. They fix the obligations of wife to husband, not only of husband to wife.
All ketubbot from Ioannina in our possession contain an amendment declaring that after the nuptial night the husband increased the value of the ketubbah because he found her to be a virgin.

There are several types of ketubbah:

  • The usual ketubbah, written at the time of the wedding, indicating if the groom is a widower, and if the bride is a virgin, widow or divorcee.
  • Replacement (De’ircasa) ketubbah; that is a ketubbah written to replace one that was lost.
  • A ketubbah for remarriage with one’s own divorced spouse.
A large part of the ketubbot are illuminated or decorated in various styles, as per the style of the time and place, and the ability of the illuminating artist.

The Library also holds a collection of 107 contracts for engagement, matchmaking or dowry, and a collection of 191 bills of divorce.  These are not yet part of the digitized collection.

In filling out the details of each ketubbah, we used the spelling of the Encyclopedia Judaica for place names. Countries were identified according to present borders, excepting the Land of Israel.  Until 1948, we used Eretz Israel in parallel to Palestine; since 1948, the name was, of course, Israel.
We encountered difficulty in Latin transcription of the names of remote places in Yemen, so many of them remain in their Hebrew form only, as they appear in the ketubbah itself.
In most ketubbot the groom, bride and witnesses are mentioned by first name and patronymic only.  Ketubbot from Italy and Yemen give the family name as well in the text proper.

A selected bibliography on ketubbot is appended to the Hebrew version of this introduction. 

Introduction written by Rivka Plesser  who also catalogued the collection.

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