The present lot is the only known example of a model ketubbah created for the nascent American Jewish community. In the absence of ordained clergy (Abraham Rice, who arrived in 1840, was the first), North American Jews required an exact guide for how this important legal contract was to be written, with instructions as how to properly complete all relevant sections (e.g., specific date and place, names of the bride and groom, personal status of the bride, sums for the ketubbah, dowry, and tosefet ketubbah, etc.).
The basic Hebrew/Aramaic text is written in a clear and lucid Sephardic semi-cursive script, with blank spaces left to indicate where insertions, particular to each case, needed to be filled in. (With regard to the witness signatures, the Portuguese phrase “Fulano de Tal,” equivalent to English “John Doe,” was used.) The document is printed on larger sized paper than was utilized for actual ketubbot, affording the scribe space to write detailed instructions, mostly in Portuguese, but with relevant phrases in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, as necessary. As it turned out, the space on the front of the contract was insufficient, and the lengthy instructional text was continued on the verso.
Traditionally, the first word of a ketubbah denotes the day of the week on which the wedding takes place. This means that under normal circumstances, there are six variable entries (Sunday through Friday) which may be entered here. In the present lot, however, the word for Wednesday (ba-revi‘i) was printed in the otherwise-blank central panel, in advance of any manuscript text to be added later. This practice is known to us from other exemplars of this ketubbah and strongly indicates the overwhelming preference among Sephardic Jews of the period to conduct weddings on Wednesdays (presumably based on the mishnaic teaching in Ketubbot 1:1).
The ketubbah’s decorated borders are based on a model designed in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century. All versions of these popular borders shared the same basic elements: an arch supported by two columns entwined with floral wreaths; a pair of putti holding a cloth upon which is engraved the blessing be-siman tov (with a good sign); and side panels filled with monumental, blossoming vines emerging from large vases that are flanked by small pots containing tulips. Two images appear in the top corners. In most versions, the image at right depicts a young couple dressed in elegant attire, representative of the bride and groom; at left, a mother and children, the classical personification of the virtue Charity (Carita). Together, the two vignettes symbolize the ideals of marriage and motherhood.
For more than two hundred years, these and similar ornamental frames adorned Sephardic ketubbot, not only in Holland, but in the European Sephardic population centers of Hamburg, Bayonne, and London, as well as in the New World. Indeed, the two earliest surviving examples of North American decorated ketubbot, both celebrating weddings which took place in New York in 1751, were each inscribed within versions of this border. It is likely that, in composing the text, the scribes of those marriage contracts consulted the present document, probably written in London to serve what would eventually become one of the largest Jewish communities in history.
That this document was created for and used by Jews who did not have the benefit of established rabbinic leadership should be seen as one of the strongest existing pieces of evidence of their commitment and dedication to the venerable institutions of their faith.
Jacob Isaaks(?) (verso)
Yosef Goldman, Hebrew Printing in America 1735-1926: A History and Annotated Bibliography, vol. 2 (Brooklyn: Yosef Goldman, 2006), 1162-1163.
Shalom Sabar, Ketubbah: Jewish Marriage Contracts of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum and Klau Library (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 265-270.
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