Navigate to Arts & Letters section


A collection of ketubot at New York’s Jewish Museum prompts the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor to consider marriage contracts from medieval times to our own

Arnold Eisen
March 11, 2011
An 1885 ketubah from Isfahan, Iran.(The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)
An 1885 ketubah from Isfahan, Iran.(The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary)

The 30 marriage contracts now being exhibited at the Jewish Museum, on loan from the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I am chancellor, repeatedly take me back to the signing of my own ketubah nearly 30 years ago. It remains the most beautiful work of art that my wife and I have on our walls, and the details of the day remain remarkably vivid.

It was a picture-perfect August morning, the sky over northern New Jersey a California shade of blue and the air unusually fresh. My friend Jonathan had finished building the chuppah with at least a half-hour to spare. My best man, Neal, had located the ketubah, which I had managed to misplace. Three little nieces in lovely pink dresses had been to the bathroom and back for what seemed the umpteenth time. The guests were seated expectantly, and the wedding party was lined up and ready to go. The only one not quite ready to march down the aisle, I then learned, was me: The friend and teacher who was going to perform the ceremony approached me with the suggestion that I take a few moments to reflect on the life-altering step I was about to take. “Where’s Arnie going?” my almost-mother-in-law asked my bride. “He has to think,” she replied. I did so, grateful ever after for that moment.

But if it’s hard not to reflect from the ketubot in the show to the one on your own wall and to the moment when you ceremonially signed on to more than you could possibly have understood before entering into marriage, it is harder still not to wonder how much of your own experience was shared by the couples whose names, prayers, and promises we know long after their deaths only because they (or, more likely, their fathers) chose to engage skilled artists to make beautiful the legal document that sealed their union.

I am particularly mesmerized by the earliest contract in the exhibit: a fragment from the Cairo Geniza that dates from the early 12th century. The word that stands out most clearly—easily deciphered by any Hebrew reader—is simcha: joy. One wonders, how long did the joy last? How long did the lives of bride and groom last? How old were they when the witnesses signed them over to one another? Teenagers, perhaps? And what did the young couple feel as the witnesses confirmed their contract? What was joy for them?

Historians can give us facts on the average age of marriage in medieval Egypt, average life expectancy, average divorce rate. But I want to know about the couple’s emotions, which—even if average, too—were surely not experienced any less intensely. The legal document that joined them powerfully resembles every other in the exhibit, as well as the one that bound my wife and me to each other. But would that Cairo bride and groom have been friends? Were they in love? Did they look to their love, as we do, to defy time and change? If so, they succeeded after a fashion. This scrap of paper survived, after all. Here I am staring at it, enchanted.

“A window onto history,” one might say of the ketubah show; “a window” into marriage is what many of the ketubot were, it seems, intended to be. Take the contract made in Modena in 1756 or the one signed in Baghdad a few years later. In each, a block of text is written on a white background and framed by intricate and delicate ornamental designs that bring to mind windows. It’s as if the artists were expressing the paradox to which every illustrated ketubah points. Marriage, unlike romance, depends for its survival on the legal fine points: promises made not in general but in specifics, intentions made good in routine provision of raiment and furnishings, 10 zuzim here, 6 zuzim there. Even conjugal rights are codified. But marriage also requires romance and, I’d wager, always did: splashes of color and extended plays of line, flourishes that are and are not measured, order that is accomplished in and through profusion.

It is telling, I think, that the congratulatory wishes characteristic of Sephardi contracts are writ large, as in the Modena ketubah, and the legalese much smaller. The Baghdad ketubah sets its three windowed prayers above the legal door through which the couple are about to walk. Light streams from both openings. Words and artistry form a unity that one hopes bride and groom were able to emulate for many years.

It’s probably my own fancy, but the large cypress tree that rivets the eye on the Isfahan contract of 1885 seems to me a giant teardrop. Lion and sun may be a Persian national symbol testifying to the age-old Jewish desire to be part of the lands in which Jews dwelled and not only set apart from them by distinctive customs such as ketubah-signing. To me these symbols seem universal as well in their implicit prayer: May God guard bride and groom from sadness, or—because we know sadness will come—may God protect them in time of trouble, may the sun rise to shine on a new day.

The symmetry of the contract from Afghanistan, framed in red and blue, seems to intend similar comfort. Indeed, the beauty of the ketubah itself—the colors, the flowers, the burst of life, as in the Damascus document from 1885—all seem prophylactics against loss, harm, death. I wonder if the brides, whose futures were arranged for them by these contracts, uttered prayers as they received the ketubah that they get pregnant and not die, as so many women did, in childbirth.

Two of the three New York City ketubot seem to my eye far less solemn or intense than the rest. One features twin grandfather clocks set at 6:13, the traditional number of commandments binding Jews, a cute touch at a moment when cuteness seems unsuitable; the twin rings adorned with handshake and crown are cleverly joined by the clasp of contract and reinforced by arches above and below. Maybe the Civil War raging when it was signed, in 1863, made lightness of mood and design imperative. Abraham Hochman looms large in the ketubah that he has provided to bride and groom in his Central Palace Hall. We can see him, much like contemporary caterers who take charge, ushering the young couple up the stairs to the red curtains surmounted by the all-American eagle. Right this way, please! Did the wedding party want to be reminded, as it mounted the stairs to the window of possibility framed by the red curtains, that it stood in a millennia-long queue?

I prefer the distinguished serpentine line and color in the Jewish National Fund ketubah, from around 1930, not seeking to fill its parchment, muted perhaps by the Depression—and seizing on the mention of Jerusalem in the wedding ceremony to solicit funds for the rebuilding of Palestine. Is this bad taste in a wedding document? Maybe—but it is true to the text’s concern with sums of zuzim and also to the ceremonial breaking of the glass at the wedding ceremony’s conclusion in memory of the Temple’s destruction. Jerusalem was being rebuilt in 1930, as the design at the top of the ketubah reminds us. The bride and groom might well want to get on a boat and visit.

My wife and I inscribed our intention to do more than visit Israel on our ketubah. After consultation with us, the artist who designed it, Shoshana Walker, placed verses featuring Jerusalem in a gold ring surrounding the legalities, and she surrounded those words, in turn, with a delicate floral pattern of deep blue, paler blue, white, and red. Our parents learned under the chuppah, not entirely happily, that we intended to go on aliyah; we ourselves learned under the chuppah, and in the hours of dancing afterward, that we were thankfully part of a generation that had reclaimed elements of Jewish tradition that had long lain dormant, the illustrated ketubah being one of them.

I don’t think I realized at the time that, until this revival, ketubot like those in the exhibition at the Jewish Museum would almost certainly not have been hung on the wall. They would have been locked away in safekeeping until required to ensure the woman’s rights in the event of divorce or death of the husband. Jews did not need displays of Jewishness in medieval Cairo or early modern Baghdad to remind them who they were. They knew, and so did their neighbors. Still—I like to think that those couples did not miss out on the pleasure gained from casting their eyes over the ketubah from time to time, remembering the beauty associated with their union and perhaps saying again a prayer to the Merciful One that joy and life continue.

Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Arnold Eisen is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.