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The Enduring Beauty of a 300-Year-Old Decorated Ketubah

(The following is a post by Sharon Horowitz, Reference Librarian, Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

A Jewish marriage contract, Ketubah, as an artistic object.

Illustrated Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) handwritten and decorated on parchment. Ancona (Italy), 1722. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division.

This charmingly illustrated object is a Jewish marriage contract, or Ketubah (plural Ketubot), handwritten in 1722 in Ancona, Italy, that was recently acquired by the Hebraic Section. Jewish Law requires the groom to provide a Ketubah to his bride on their wedding day. It establishes the groom’s marital obligations to his bride as well as his financial obligations to her in case of divorce or widowhood, like a modern-day prenuptial agreement.

The Rabbis formulated the basic clauses of the contract during the Talmudic period (250-500 C.E.), incorporating provisions composed as early as the first century B.C.E. Traditionally, the text is written in Aramaic, a language understood by most people during the period when the text was formulated. The contract is signed by two witnesses. The earliest surviving Ketubah is from the fifth century B.C.E. Over the years, it became customary for Sephardi Jews (originally residents of Spain and Portugal, who were expelled in the late 15th century and migrated to Italy or the Ottoman Empire) to vary the exact wording and terms of the dowry and other financial clauses in the Ketubah to align with the family’s socioeconomic status.

Commissioning illustrated Ketubot was popular in medieval Spain. After the expulsion, Spanish Jews brought this custom with them to their new homes. The earliest illustrated Ketubot that have come down to us, are from Venice dating back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as a result of the influence of these refugees from the Iberian Peninsula. In Sephardi weddings, the Ketubah served both a legal and social function. The contract was displayed and read aloud at the wedding. Invited guests took great interest in the particular variations in the text related to the families’ finances.

To further personalize the Ketubah, Sephardi Jews developed a second set of clauses written in the Ketubah called betrothal conditions or tenaim, specific to each couple and written alongside or beneath the standard Ketubah text. In the Ketubah belonging to the Hebraic Section and reproduced above, the larger, square Hebrew letters are the text of the Ketubah proper. The smaller rabbinic script below it contains the tenaim. Each city had its own customary tenaim; in Ancona, these supplemental agreements usually included at least the following conditions: the groom agrees not to take a second wife; if the groom dies, the bride is paid the dowry from the estate as well as the voluntary increment stipulated in the Ketubah; and if the bride dies without having given birth to a child, the groom returns half the dowry to her father or his heirs.

Ancona was one of the most important centers of Ketubah decoration in Italy from the 17th to 19th centuries. The practice of commissioning large and lavish marriage contracts grew so popular there, with families competing to outdo each other in lavishness, that community Rabbis issued an ordinance limiting the amount one was permitted to spend on a Ketubah. Ancona Ketubot were written on parchment; the upper border was in the shape of an arch or a dome.

Created in the period when Italy was the center of Hebrew printing, the design of this Ketubah may have been inspired by title pages of Hebrew books published at the time. The title page art is a gateway inviting the reader into the text. In the Ketubah pictured, a simple arch (or gateway), supported by two Corinthian columns, frames the text, possibly symbolizing the bride and groom’s entry into a new life together. The Ketubah is decorated with a border of colorful lifelike flowers and birds. At the top is a butterfly and below that a wreath of flowers with a Star of David in the center. In the center of the star is a depiction of how the hands are arranged when giving the priestly blessing (both the bride and groom are from priestly families). The star is encircled by the inscription: With a good sign and favorable fortune for the bride and groom and all Israel Amen. Finally, at the bottom of the text are the signatures of the two official witnesses, including Rabbi Shimshon son of Yehoshua Mosheh Morpurgo (a prominent Ancona Rabbi and a medical doctor, 1681-1740).

For reference assistance or to learn more about the Hebraic collections at the Library of Congress, contact the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room via Ask-A-Librarian service, or (202) 707-4188.

Learn More:

“From Textual to Visual: Illustrated Ketubbot in the Braginsky Collection” in “A Journey through Jewish Worlds: Highlights from the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books.” Edited by Evelyn M. Cohen, Sharon Liberman Mintz, Emile G. L. Schrijver. Amsterdam: Bijzondere Collecties, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 2009.

Ketubbot italiane: antichi contratti ebraici miniati” / presentazione di Liliana Grassi; testi di V. Colorni [et.al.] a cura dell’Associazione italiana amici dell’Universita di Gerusalemme. Milan: L’Associazione, 1984.

Nahson, Claudia J. “Ketubbot: Marriage Contracts from the Jewish Museum.” New York: Jewish Museum, c1998.

Sabar, Shalom. “Ketubbah: Jewish marriage contracts of the Hebrew Union College, Skirball Museum and Klau Library.” Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990.

– “The Beginnings of Ketubbah Decoration in Italy, Venice in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries” in Jewish Art. 12/13 (1986-1987). pp. 96-110.

Shilo, Yoel. “Prenuptial Agreements in Ketubot from Italy.” In “The Jews in Italy: Their Contribution To the Development and Diffusion of Jewish Heritage.” Edited by Yaron Harel and Mauro Perani. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019.

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