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The Ketubah, An Ornate Jewish Marriage Tradition

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This is a guest post by Maria Peña, a writer-editor in the Office of Communications. This article also appears in the May-June issue of the LIbrary of Congress Magazine.

No Jewish marriage is complete without a ketubah (plural, ketubot), a traditional legal document introduced during the wedding ceremony. The ketubah not only legitimizes the marriage but, following Jewish law, also spells out the groom’s financial and conjugal obligations to his bride during their life journey.

Most traditional ketubot are written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and their artistry reflects the time, place and culture of their creation. The earliest surviving ketubah, found in Egypt and written in Aramaic on papyrus, dates from circa 440 B.C.

The earliest illustrated ketubot, however, originated in Venice and date to the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There, some Jewish communities began decorating ketubot with lavish colors, symbols and designs — arches, columns, decorated borders, human figures and motifs inspired by nature.

Some documents, like those produced in certain Italian cities such as Ancona, included an additional financial agreement between families written beneath the standard text, a practice that faded with time. The traditional ketubah described the groom’s contractual protections for his wife and, much like a contemporary prenuptial agreement, his financial obligations to her in case of divorce or widowhood.

The Library holds 11 traditional ketubot. An 1805 ketubah from Ancona, a center of ketubah production from the 17th to the 19th centuries, is decorated with human figures. One produced 70 years later in Tetuan, Morocco, displays only nature motifs — ketubot from Islamic lands weren’t decorated with human figures, instead drawing their richness from bright plant and animal motifs.

The oldest ketubah at the Library dates to 1722, from Ancona. Written in Hebrew and Aramaic and ringed by an elaborate network of colorful flowers and birds, the document records the marriage of Diamanti, daughter of Moses ben Raphael Ha-Cohen, to Samuel ben Moses, son of David Ha-Cohen. Text at the bottom describes valuables the bride brought into the marriage and other financial arrangements agreed upon by both families.

Modern-day Jewish marriage contracts remain as ornate and personalized as wallets will allow — with some including commissioned art, silver or gold leaf, and they become family heirlooms and lifelong treasures.

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Comments (2)

  1. Good Stuff, I am excited, excellent work.
    The mystery is our history!

  2. Nice information and advices for Jewish marriage Black

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