The Anatomy of a Jewish Marriage Contract

The Anatomy of a Jewish Marriage Contract

Explore An Elaborately Illustrated Ketubbah from Corfu, 1790, a highlight of the upcoming Important Judaica auction (5 June, New York).
Explore An Elaborately Illustrated Ketubbah from Corfu, 1790, a highlight of the upcoming Important Judaica auction (5 June, New York).

The Illustrated Jewish Marriage Contract

 
I n Judaism, a singular, written agreement is an essential element of traditional marriage. Formulated in the Talmudic Era, a Jewish marriage contract, or Ketubbah, is a progressive, prenuptial document that obligates the bridegroom to financially protect the bride in the event of divorce or his death. An enduring rite, Ketubbot remain ubiquitous in the modern-day Jewish community.

As biblical law permits a husband to dissolve marriage at will, the Ketubbah was established to disincentivize impulsive divorce and to ensure that a wife receives a year of monetary support upon the marriage’s termination. The contract often outlines other nuptial commitments, such as the bride’s right to shelter, food, and clothing.

A Ketubbah’s standard text, written in Aramaic and Hebrew, specifies a money clause alongside other crucial details: the date and location of the marriage as well as the names of the bridegroom, bride and each of their fathers.

In Ashkenazi culture (Jews of German descent), a universal money clause was accepted early on, in direct contrast to non-Ashkenazi communities, who varied the money clause to align with the family’s socioeconomic status. To further personalize the Ketubbah, non-Ashkenazi Jews developed a second set of marital conditions – curated to each couple – to be featured in tandem with the standard Talmudic Ketubbah text.

Thus, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a population of affluent Jews elevated Ketubbot even further, all while living in the Italian ghetto. These families adopted the practice of commissioning richly illustrated marriage contracts – mirroring the equally lavish marriages of their offspring.

A highlight of the upcoming Important Judaica auction, An Elaborately Illustrated Ketubbah from Corfu, 1790, is an ornate product of this Italian custom. The artistic traditions of the Jewish community on the Greek island of Corfu were significantly influenced by Italian practices, as the island was under the protectorate of the Republic of Venice from 1387 to 1797. The below Ketubbah is an exceptional witness to the artistry of an illustrious early modern Jewish community – to learn more about the document’s imagery, click the red dots.

Click the Dots to Discover An Illustrated Ketubbah From Corfu, 1790
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  • Coat of Arms: Vivante and Cohen

    Family crests are commonplace on illustrated Jewish marriage contracts. As Jewish families were not able to achieve heraldic status in early modern Europe, these emblems were created within the community.

    Here, the cartouche displays a double coat of arms: a hand holding a flag (the emblem of the Vivante family) surrounded by two hands in the formation used during the priestly benediction (the emblem of the Cohen family). Beneath this, a slightly smaller cartouche exhibits the initials of the bride and groom.

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  • With A Good Sign

    A popular Aramaic blessing on Ketubbot, the above translates to: “With A Good Sign and With Full Luck.”

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  • The Seasons: Summer

    In Italian Ketubbot, representations of the four seasons and the zodiac are among the most prevalent motifs.

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  • The Seasons: Autumn

    In Italian Ketubbot, representations of the four seasons and the zodiac are among the most prevalent motifs.

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  • The Seasons: Spring

    In Italian Ketubbot, representations of the four seasons and the zodiac are among the most prevalent motifs.

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  • Putto

    The putto, like the zodiac, is an example of secular Italian influence. This Ketubbah was illustrated by a Jewish craftsman, who, due to religious segregation, more than likely did not receive professional training within the Italian guild system. As they were not allowed access to higher arts, such as Baroque and Renaissance portraiture, Jewish artisans sought inspiration in Italian minor arts.

    Additionally, this Putto reveals vital information – as it is stamped by a religious authority in Corfu.

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  • The Zodiac: Aries, Taurus, and Gemini

    The usage of the zodiac directly reflects the impact of secular Italian society on Italy's Jewish communities. Zodiac representations proliferated throughout early modern Europe, most likely due to the arrival of almanacs – which were swiftly devoured by the public upon their annual release.

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  • The Seasons: Winter

    In Italian Ketubbot, representations of the four seasons and the zodiac are among the most prevalent motifs.

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  • The Zodiac: Cancer, Leo, and Virgo

    The usage of the zodiac directly reflects the impact of secular Italian society on Italy's Jewish communities. Zodiac representations proliferated throughout early modern Europe, most likely due to the arrival of almanacs – which were swiftly devoured by the public upon their annual release.

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  • The Zodiac: Pisces, Aquarius, and Capricorn

    The usage of the zodiac directly reflects the impact of secular Italian society on Italy's Jewish communities. Zodiac representations proliferated throughout early modern Europe, most likely due to the arrival of almanacs – which were swiftly devoured by the public upon their annual release.

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  • The Zodiac: Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Libra

    The usage of the zodiac directly reflects the impact of secular Italian society on Italy's Jewish communities. Zodiac representations proliferated throughout early modern Europe, most likely due to the arrival of almanacs – which were swiftly devoured by the public upon their annual release.

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  • Talmudic Text

    Inscribed in black ink on a large piece of parchment, the upper section of text consists of a Ketubbah’s Talmudic conditions. Celebrating the wedding of Hayyim Judah (Leon Vita) ben Isaac Maimon Vivante and Sarah bat Joseph Elijah ha-Kohen on Wednesday, 11 Tammuz 5550 (June 12, 1790), this text provides standard information, such as the marriage date and family names.

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  • Special Conditions

    Written in smaller semi-cursive script, this Ketubbah features a second set of conditions, specific to the individual couple. This section occupies more than half the document and lists at great length and in great detail the various items brought into the marriage, together with their monetary values. At the bottom of the document, one can observe the handwritten signatures of the groom and two witnesses.

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  • The Groom Will Rejoice

    The framed statement translates to: "The Groom Will Rejoice with His Bride."

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