I hear from couples all the time, “Cantor, we’ve never done this before…” Of course! Unless you’ve been through planning a wedding before, there is no experience from which to draw when it comes to so many details involved with the rites and rituals of a wedding. Nowhere is this more potentially confusing is when shopping for a ketubah. With so many choices between artists and texts, it can be confusing. Let’s do a deep dive and see what you need to know about shopping for a ketubah.
What is a ketubah and why do we need it?
The ketubah, a word coming from the Hebrew word “likhtov” (“to write”) is a written marriage contract. Consider it the original Jewish Prenup. Before civil marital law governed marriages, the Rabbis had their own contract laws to define the groom’s responsibilities in a married relationship and how it would affect his bride (note: the traditional Jewish marriage would be between a “hetero-normative” couple of two Jews. Since the ketubah was a legalistic document rooted in Jewish law, there were very strict guidelines in how it was to be worded). The ketubah defined the dowery as well as the bride’s rights in the relationship. It even defined details around a divorce, should the relationship need to be dissolved.
Because of how it was originally envisioned centuries ago, it appears to be a document which outlines a purchase of a bride from her family and sold to a groom. For that reason, the traditional ketubah is inherently sexist. For example, traditional ketubot (plural for “ketubah”) allow for divorce as long as when a bride asks for it, the groom is willing. If the husband abandon’s his wife after marriage, she cannot simply go before a court of Jewish law and ask for a divorce. She would require her husband to grant the divorce before the court. As a result, in modern day Israel—a country whose marital laws are governed by the ultra-orthodox—there are many wives who have been abandoned by their husbands, and therefore are not allowed to get remarried since a Jewish divorce was not granted.
In much more recent years, the Conservative Movement of Judaism created “The Lieberman Clause” which made the traditional ketubah more egalitarian. It would allow for either party to initiate the divorce should it be warranted.
But in the 21st century, we in the United States are most used to our legal marital status to be governed by a secular marriage license provided by our local town or city hall. We don’t hear much about couples getting strictly a religious divorce nowadays, and for good reason: U.S. law has a separation of church & state, and so we rely on attorneys and case law to dictate how one gets divorced, not on the stipulations of a ketubah.
For those who were brought up Orthodox or Conservative, or who like preserving tradition, having a traditional ketubah is sacrosanct. But for more and more modern Jews, couples of different faiths, rational thinking couples, same sex couples, the legalistic language of the traditional ketubah is irrelevant, since we rely on the laws of our state and country to protect each member of the married couple and the couple as a whole. (It should be noted in New York State, if you do go through a divorce and you signed a traditional ketubah, your attorney will put in a paragraph stating that a get (Jewish divorce) must be granted on demand. I know this personally, having gone through a divorce myself, my attorney putting that paragraph in, and I actually got a get several years after being divorced).
Whether it is traditional or liberal, the ketubah talks about what is promised in your relationship. At its heart the ketubah contains your wedding vows. This is also why the traditional Jewish wedding doesn’t contain vows. Rather, the ketubah is read aloud during the ceremony.
The traditional ketubah also talks about the exchange of something of worth being traded to signify the solemnization of the relationship. That is where the ring comes in. This is also why witnesses sign the ketubah. A common misconception is that once a ketubah is signed, a couple is at that moment married. This is not the case. The witnesses sign the ketubah to attest that they will witness the ceremony, hear the words said by the groom and the bride, and exchange the ring. The witnesses’ job is not complete until the ceremony is over.
So do we really need a ketubah?
Needs take all sorts of forms. If your wedding is not halakhic (read: bound by strict Jewish law), then the Jewish legal need for a ketubah is more or less moot. But we also have emotional needs that stem from our upbringing, love of tradition, or embracing of new rites. Rituals add meaning to our lives, and ritual objects, such as a ketubah, can be a very meaningful physical symbol of your wedding ceremony. If you’ve ever seen a wedding license issued from a state, it’s not something that states anything about your relationship, your hopes and dreams. It is simply a legalistic, one-page document proving that you’re married in the eyes of the state. It’s not something you’d really want to hang on the wall of your home. Rather, it belongs in a fire-proof safe with other legal documents.
The modern, non-legalistic ketubah is instead something that can be customized to each couple, containing relevant text about the significance of your wedding day, the specialness of your relationship, and be a physical declaration of your love. This is why many couples still like to include the creation and signing of a ketubah as a ritual part of the wedding ceremony.
What should we look for in picking a ketubah text?
Let’s start with what you shouldn’t select. Unless you’re being married by an Orthodox or Conservative clergy person, you shouldn’t be looking at ketubah texts with legalistic language. It’s best to keep the legal stuff with the marriage license from the state. Instead, you want to select a text that is meaningful to you.
But there are so many text options out there! What “needs” to be included? Usually, you’ll want the date, place, your names, and so on to signify the importance of your wedding day. After that, as long as you’re not bound by tradition, you can include things like significant quotes, your own creative vows and promises, your hopes for the future… If you are exchanging rings and know what you will say when the exchange takes place, you can state that as well.
Be forewarned: If you start searching around the internet for creative ketubah texts, most that you will find will be copyrighted texts. If you find a text you like from one artist or poet but want a different artist to render your ketubah, they will refuse. Thankfully, most artists have a wide variety of texts to chose from that appeal to a broad array of couples. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with attempting to write your own original text and have an artist render it from scratch on your behalf. Bottom line: Always consult with your officiant before ordering a ketubah!
Who should be asked to sign the ketubah?
Traditionally, only the two witnesses (over the age of 13 and not blood related to the couple) and commonly the officiant sign the ketubah. More recently, it has become more common for the bride and the groom to sign the document as well. The witnesses don’t have to be the same as for the marriage license. The best rule of thumb is to talk with your officiant about who to honor and select for your witnesses. Some require only the two witnesses, whereas some other officiants are fine with a multiplicity of signatories.
Are there any rules about the art or calligraphy?
Judaism has a wonderful concept called khiddur mitzvahthis gallery, or “beautification of fulfilling a commandment.” The idea behind it is that if we are instructed to fulfill a commandment but have no hard and fast rules about how to do so, it is incumbent on the one observing the commandment to do so in a way that it brings beauty to the world. In the case of a ketubah, tradition requires that a ketubah is written, but outside of the fact that it is a written document, there is little guidance regarding the typefaces, paper, adorning artwork, etc. that makes a ketubah “kosher.” This is why you’ll see so many variations in the artwork of ketubot (plural for ketubah), even traditional ones (take a look at from the Yale University Library of ketubot from several hundred years ago!).
Outside of doing it yourself (if you’re an artist and haven’t created a ketubah before, you might want to get some guidance from your officiant, but it can be a fun project!), you will want to shop around and find the artist whose work speaks most to you. There’s no reason to spend hundreds of dollars if you don’t want to. Some artists have lithographs or high quality inkjet versions of their work ready for computer customizations, where others will want to create everything by hand. It’s really all up to the couple what they want to use.
Does our ketubah need to include Hebrew?
That is purely up to the couple and the officiant. I prefer for couples that I work with to have a document that means something to them. If Hebrew (literally) speaks to them, include it! If you’d rather have a ketubah that is entirely in a language that you both understand, go in that direction instead. The most important thing is that it says what you want it to say in a meaningful way.
If you decide to include Hebrew, you’ll want to be sure to include your Hebrew names (if you have them). You will most definitely want to have your officiant proof the Hebrew on your behalf to make sure there aren’t any Hebrew typos or unusual language in the Hebrew text. I do this for all my couples to ensure they have a text that matches their English.
Where should we go shopping for a ketubah?
Thought you’d never ask! There are a number of vendors and individual artists that I’ve personally recommended to couples over the years—plus others that seem to have some really cool art and text options. Do bear in mind that not every text will be available for every artist you might like.
Here are just a few to check out:
- MPArtworks: I’ve referred most of my couples to MPArtworks for the last 20 years. They have a wide selection of artists represented as well as creative ketubah texts.
- Ketubah.com: Ketubah.com has been around for a very long time, and with their search engine optimization including the word “ketubah” in their website address, they usually are listed pretty high up on Google. But they have the experience and variety you will want if you can’t find what you’re looking for at MPArtworks.
- Karen Schloss: Karen was a congregant of mine when I was working in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. She is an expert at paper laser cuts and her work is absolutely stunning. Unlike some of the stock inventory most ketubah clearinghouses have, artists like Karen do need a lead time to customize a ketubah—sometimes 3-6 months. The wait is worth it.
- Stephanie Caplan: I recently worked with a couple who commissioned a ketubah from Stephanie. Her work is also unique and lovely, and as an officiant, she was very open to good communication to make sure the couple was happy!
- Elyse Meyerson: Based in Brooklyn, NY, Elyse has very organic feeling artwork. I’ve worked with her on a ketubah for a couple and she’s great to work with, on top of being a great artist!
- Cool Ketubah: It never would have occurred to me that the word “tuba” is in “ketubah,” but that gives you a sense of the quirkiness that Cool Ketubah includes in their artwork. Visually stunning, very unusual, these will not be for everyone.
- Ketubah Arts: I grew up loving typography and graphic design and I find these ketubot to have amazing impact.
- 1-800-Ketubah: If you noticed the ketubah at the top of this article, it was from artist Nava Shoham. It’s also the ketubah me and my wife used at our wedding! We love her work and you will too!