The Historical Origins of Ketubah Art and Aesthetics

What Is a Ketubah?

The ancient definition of a ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract that lays down the financial obligations of the groom toward the bride. Legislated by Shimon ben Shetach in the 1st century BCE, it served to protect the rights of the bride in case of divorce or widowhood, in fact the word itself has its roots in the word “written” in Hebrew. Here’s what Rabbi Meir from the 2nd century CE had to say about the significance of the ketubah: “It is forbidden for the husband to live with his wife without a ketubah even for one hour.”

A historical ketubah from Livorno created in 1968

An illuminated ketubah (Livorno, Tuscany, 1698)

To the modern eye, the ketubah is  a piece of intricate, inspiring artwork. Enriched with the ketubah artist’s particular vision, infused with color, and offered in a myriad styles, the modern ketubah is much more than a legal document. Today’s ketubahs are both romantic and poetic, truly works of art.

But it is, first and foremost, a contract, conceptually similar to the prenuptial agreement. And yet, one does not see a great many decorated prenups, right? So how did a strictly utilitarian contract end up on the artist’s canvas? Read on to find out!

The Ketubah tradition is alive and well in modernity

Mazel Tov Nancy and Kevin with their Love Tree Ketubah 3

A Brief History of the Ketubah

There is no mention of any form of marriage contract in the Torah. By the 3rd century CE, however, the custom of drawing up of a marriage contract appears to have become prevalent in the Jewish community. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Shetach was motivated to institute the ketubah as a means to curb hasty divorces initiated by grooms at the expense of their brides.

In 1752, a collection of around 4000 Jewish manuscript fragments was discovered in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Egypt. So why is the Cairo Genizah, as the manuscripts are collectively called, significant?

Well, over 200 of these manuscript fragments were—you guessed it!—ketubot (plural for ketubah). Interestingly, while most of these ketubot were plain texts, there were instances of decorated ketubot as well.

What’s in a Ketubah?

A Spooning Ketubah: the Historic Tradition meets a new approach

Spooning Couple Watercolor Ketubah

The traditional ketubah records the particulars of the wedding (e.g. the wedding’s date and location, the names of the bride and the groom, and so on) and the traditional Orthodox ketubah  specifies the groom’s financial and conjugal obligations toward his bride as well. The Conservative ketubah also includes these details, but with an extra clause added to make it more egalitarian.

But in contemporary times, aside from the basic outline, what should or should not be written in a ketubah depends on whether the wedding is Orthodox or modern in nature.

Traditionally, the ketubah would be written in Aramaic and the Orthodox ketubah text still is because it uses that same ancient text that has been passed down for generations. Nowadays, any ketubah that doesn’t use the traditional Orthodox text is likely to be composed in a language suitable to the couple, or even more than one language – Hebrew and English being the most popular combination. According to Jewish tradition, all ketubahs must be signed by witnesses and then read aloud at the wedding. The Orthodox ketubah is signed by two male witnesses who cannot be related to the couple, but in modern weddings the witnesses can be anyone the bride and groom choose and the couple themselves usually sign as well.

Ketubah Aesthetics


Ketubah aesthetics in the service of love and marriage

Mazel Tov Nancy and Kevin with their Love Tree Ketubah 3

In his book, The Art of the Ketubbah (Rizzoli, January 3, 2001), Judaic art expert Shalom Sabar writes: “The earliest extant decorated ketubot come from Eretz Israel and Egypt of the ninth-tenth centuries. Discovered at the famous Cairo Genizah, they attest to the beginnings of the trend to decorate the contracts.”

The decorations were limited to simple floral platforms, along with geometric, micrographic, and architectural design elements. Over time, the quintessential Genizah ketubot arrived in Europe and in the 17th century, in the so-called Ghetto Age, the art of the ketubah reached its pinnacle.

“It was in this period,” Sabar notes, “that some of the most attractive and extravagant ketubot known to us today from anywhere in the Jewish world were produced on Italian soil.”

Micrography and illumination featured prominently in the Roman ketubot. Apart from floral and vegetal designs, human and allegorical figures were common too. 

The modern ketubah combines micrography, illumination, paper cutting, figurative art depicting biblical couples, as well as zodiac signs.

Ketubah Today


The Ketubah persists through history

Mazel Tov William and Lauren with the Soul Tree Ketubah

The traditional text of the Orthodox ketubah has changed very little. Nonetheless, as our society progressed, the ketubah has indeed accommodated a bunch of egalitarian changes.

The Lieberman clause, which is used by the Conservative movement, was introduced in the 1950s and stipulates that a man contemplating divorce must present his wife with a get, or a bill of divorce. Traditionally, a woman without a get was forbidden to remarry.

Contemporary ketubah texts also accommodate the LGBTQ+ community. There are humanist and interfaith ketubah texts, non-binary and same-sex ketubah texts, as well as make-your-own ketubah texts. That said, any ketubah text should first be approved by the officiating rabbi.

Another loving couple and their rabbi are keeping ketubah history going!

Mazel Tov William and Lauren with the Soul Tree Ketubah

Today, ketubahs are highly popular in the Jewish diaspora, and even some non-Jewish communities have also come to embrace this tradition. This renaissance of the ketubah may in part be traced to the publication of The First Jewish Catalog in 1973. It is a detailed do-it-yourself manual of Judaic art.

Significantly, the concept of commissioning ketubah artists was popularized by the well-known calligrapher and Judaic painter, David Moss: “In the late 1960s, I began the current revival of the Hand-Made Hebrew Marriage Contract, the Ketubah. Through hundreds of private commissions, cover stories, articles on my work in national publications, exhibits, and my piece in the Jewish Catalogue, this kicked off the renaissance of the modern Ketubah and created a mini-industry of hundreds of Ketubah artists.” (From David Moss’s official website.)

So there you are! From prosaic marriage contracts to couples going down to an artist’s studio to conceptualize a work of art together, the journey of the ketubah has been exceptional. Indeed, the ketubah is no less than visual poetry in which your love for and commitment toward your spouse is encased in divine shapes and shades.

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