Under Jewish law, the traditional wedding ceremony process starts with the signing of the ketubah (Hebrew for “written thing”), which is the marriage contract.
While friends, family and those co-workers you had to invite start shuffling into the reception area to chow down on the hors d'oeuvres, the groom and two male witnesses head to a private room and review the ketubah with the rabbi.
The ketubah is traditionally written in Talmudic-era Aramaic. More modern versions can be written in Hebrew, English or other languages. As the groom is unlikely to be fluent in Aramaic, the rabbi will read the ketubah aloud and explain what it stipulates.
The ketubah details the groom's responsibilities toward his future wife after marriage. These will include a roof over her head, clothes on her back, food on her plate and sex. (The Mishna goes on to stipulate exactly how much sex based on the husband’s occupation – if you are going to marry a Jewish camel driver, you should really look at the details in Ketubot 5:5).
The ketubah also states how much the husband must pay if he decides to divorce without cause, though nowadays this is hardly enforced.
Most Jews don't live in Israel, and therefore divorce through civil courts. Even if they choose a foreign rabbinical court, it is rare for the amount set in the ketubah to actually be paid, because of negotiations and legal maneuvering. In Israel a divorce may take place in either a rabbinical court or a civil court; the payment stated by the ketubah is ignored by the civil court, and in the religious one, the same maneuvering takes place.
While the ketubah does follow a formula, it is customarily drawn up prior to the wedding and its details have to be filled in by the rabbi – the names of the bride and groom, the date, and location of the wedding, as well as the abovementioned sum to be paid during divorce.
In order for the contract to be binding, an item of property must change hands (so that the groom cannot argue later that the contract had been only theoretical). At this point the groom gives something “of value,” usually a pen or a handkerchief, to the rabbi, at least symbolically. After seeing the property transfer hands, the witnesses and groom then sign the ketubah.
In more progressive streams of Judaism, alternative versions of a ketubah may be used, including those that stipulate the responsibilities of husband and wife to one another on an egalitarian footing. In this case, the bride also signs the contract.
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