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Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Mohar, Matan, and the Ketubbah

 

Dr. Yoel Shiloh

 

Ashkelon College

 

Shechem son of Hamor fell in love in with Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in order to obtain her family’s consent he offered a sum of money which in his eyes was “an offer they could not refuse” (Gen. 34:11-12):

Then Shechem said to her father and brothers, “Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me.   Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

The bride-price (mohar) and gifts (matan) are sums of money or monetary equivalents that the groom or his family transfers to the bride’s family.  The amount is subject to negotiation, and sometimes is translated into work or a specifically defined deed which is difficult to perform. [1]   The bride-price is a sum defined by law, and the gifts comprise a sum that is established by agreement between the families or according to the groom’s generosity. [2]   Some people consider that the bride-price and gifts are one and the same. [3]

In the time of the Sages the bride-price, which they termed ketubbah, [4] underwent considerable legal change:  the said sum was to be given not at the beginning of the marriage, but at its termination.  The Sages set a fixed sum for the ketubbah – two hundred zuz for a woman’s first marriage and one hundred zuz for a remarriage.   This sum was uniform and obligatory; it was not to be increased nor decreased:  “The ketubbah for a virgin is two hundred and for a widow, a maneh.” [5]   The legislation transferring the payment of this sum from the beginning of the marriage to its termination is ascribed to Simeon ben Shetah: [6]

Originally it was the practice to actually give a virgin two hundred and a widow one hundred; so the men would grow old and not take wives, ... until Simeon ben Shetah came and amended the legislation, providing that the groom promise her in writing, “all my property is a guarantee for her ketubbah.”

Two hundred zuz is a considerable sum. [7]   Young men had to save for many years until they amassed the requisite amount, and in the meantime the marriageable women were left sitting in their father’s house, longing for a groom.   The purpose of Simeon ben Shetah’s regulation was to lower the marriage age by easing the terms on the groom, so that the marriage sum essentially became the sum required for divorce.   Another purpose of instituting the ketubbah was to strengthen the institution of marriage:   “In the beginning the ketubbah was entrusted to her father and thus the man thought lightly of divorcing his wife...  Simeon ben Shetah legislated that a person could do business using his wife’s ketubbah.” [8]   Thus, the purpose of the ketubbah was that a man “not think lightly of divorcing his wife.” [9]   Simeon ben Shetah’s legislation provided that the woman in effect lend her husband the bride-price money to do with as he pleased, except that he had to promise to repay it whenever obligated to, by putting a lien on all his property for the amount of the ketubbah. [10]

As the bride-price (mohar) became the ketubbah, so the matan became “additions to the ketubbah.” [11]   Primarily the additions to the ketubbah gave the groom permission to undertake additional monetary obligations vis a vis his wife:  “Even though they said, ‘A virgin receives two hundred and a widow one hundred,’ if he wishes to add on to that sum, even a hundred-fold one hundred, he may do so.” [12]   Aside from the “addition to the ketubbah,” sometimes mention is made in the ketubbah document of the dowry that the bride brings, since the groom or his heirs are obliged to repay the wife the value of her dowry after he dies or divorces her.  

There have been several customs of adding to the ketubbah practiced in Jewish communities over the years.   Sometimes the groom would give the bride an “addition to her dowry,” sometimes “an additional third,” sometimes “early” and sometimes “late,” and various other nomenclatures for assorted ways of augmenting the ketubbah.  What they all share in common is that the total exceeds the defined sum that is placed on the man or his heirs as a debt that must be paid to the wife upon termination of the marriage, either by divorce or death of the husband.  Originally this sum was intended to hinder reckless divorce.  It also provides an economic foundation for the woman in the time that follows the termination of her marriage.

Aside from the obligation of two hundred zuz, set and maintained by the legislation of the Sages, the total sum together with all the additions to the ketubbah is what the public generally calls the “total sum (sakh hakol) of the ketubbah”.  This is the amount of money that the officiating rabbi proclaims under the bridal canopy when he reads the ketubbah or marriage document; some rabbis deliberately do not read this sum out loud.   In several Jewish communities it was the practice to express the additions to the ketubbah in the local currency, while other communities continued to express this sum in ancient coinage which had not been in use for centuries. [13]   Much ink has been expended by halakhic authorities in writing responses on the question of the value of a ketubbah when the time comes to pay up, [14] and the issue remains unresolved to this day.

A custom spread among the public of viewing the sum of the ketubbah as reflecting the value of the bride in the groom’s eyes.   Sometimes the bride or her parents would insist on raising the sum as much as possible.   The amount of money also serves as a basis of comparison with other marriages in the same time and place.   Even centuries back it was common to find sums for the ketubbah that far exceeded the true financial capabilities of the groom, [15]   and in most Jewish communities in the past few centuries the sums of ketubbot climbed higher and higher, becoming totally unrealistic.  When the groom makes an undertaking for an exaggerated sum that he cannot possibly fulfill, it is clear to the groom, to the bride, and to society in general that there is no true obligation being made, rather only a symbolic act.   Hence some authorities doubt the halakhic validity of such a ketubbah.   In this way the Sages’ legislation, designed so that the groom “not think lightly of divorcing his wife,” lost its bite, since in the eyes of the public the ketubbah was transformed from a binding legal document to a merely ceremonial one. [16]   In recent times rabbis in several Jewish communities have attempted to fight against this trend of exaggerated sums of money.  For example, in 1950, the Rabbinical Council in Morocco proposed legislation that would place a limit on permissible sums in the ketubbah: [17]

For some twenty years people who hold themselves high and mighty, of their own accord and without following the regulation of elders of the oaths of the city dignitaries, have come forward and exceeded the limitations set by early authorities, increasing the additions to the ketubbah a hundred-fold for every ten, and others have followed their lead...   And generation after generation continue to add further, so that they have reached sums of millions.

In adjudicating divorce cases today, rabbinical courts generally ignore the sum listed in the ketubbah and impose on the husband another sum, sometimes determined by the divorce agreement reached between the parties or according to the discretion of the judges.  Rabbi Moses Feinstein wrote in this regard: [18]

In almost all matters of divorce [the ketubbah] essentially plays no part.  Since one cannot divorce [a woman] against her will, in divorce it depends on who demands the get [writ of divorce] and gives the other side as large a settlement as needed to satisfy the person to give or accept a get.   Even regarding widows who are not the mother of the sons, in most instances there is a Last Will and Testament, as well as laws of the state, so that most people are either satisfied or forced to comply.

Of late attempts have been made to limit the sums written in the ketubbah in order to restore the ketubbah to its halakhic status and to uphold the legislation of the Sages which was enacted so that a man “not think lightly of divorcing his wife.”  For example, Rabbi Dikhovsky has suggested that the sum of the ketubbah be set at 60,000 NIS (approximately $15,000), and under no circumstances exceed 120,000 NIS. [19]   It might not be long until we see the sums of the ketubbah decreased back to reasonable bounds, and the legislation of the Sages restored to pride of place as behooves its original objective – to give stability to marital life among the Jewish people.

                                                                                                                  



[1] Sums of money:  Genesis 20:16, Exodus 22:16.  Monetary equivalent:   Genesis 24:53, and see Nahmanides in note 2, below.  Labor:   Genesis 29:18-20, 28-30.   A deed which is difficult to perform:  Genesis 34:15, I Samuel 18:28.

[2] A fixed sum:  Deut. 22:29.   The term for the gifts, matan in Hebrew, comes from matanah = gift, as in matan ba-seter = secret giving (Prov. 21:14).   Also cf. Nahmanides on Genesis 33:12, where he says that the bride-price referred to the sivlonot, a laden shipment of gifts that young men would send to young maidens when they consented to marry them, and matan referred to trinkets or silver and gold that the groom would give her father and brothers.   Likewise, Nahmanides on Exodus 22:15.

[3] Metzudat Zion on I Sam. 18:25.

[4] Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubbot 3.5:  “Bride-price is none other than the ketubbah.”   Also cf. Rashi on Genesis 34:12.   The term ketubbah is generally used by the Sages to denote the sum that the husband must pay his wife upon termination of their marriage, and not to refer to the written document of obligation signed by the witnesses and given at the end of the wedding ceremony by the groom to his bride for safekeeping.  To distinguish between the two, some people use the more precise terms, ikkar ketubbah (the substance of the ketubba) to refer to the sum of money, and shtar  ketubbah, the ketubbah document, to refer to the written obligation.

[5] Mishnah, Ketubbot 1.2.  A maneh is a coin worth one hundred zuz.  Also cf. Ketubbot 56b on various attempts to circumvent the regulation regarding a fixed and obligatory sum.

[6] Ketubbot 82b.

[7] This sum of money was sufficient to support a person for an entire year.   See Tiferet Yisrael on Pe’ah 8.8.

[8] Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubbot 8.11.

[9] Bava Kamma 89a.

[10] Cf. I. L. Epstein, Toledot ha-Ketubbah be-Yisrael, New York 1954, pp. 13-16.

[11] Contrary to Epstein’s opinion that matan became the “addition to the dowry,” based on Genesis Rabbah 80.7:  Mohar (=bride-price) is pranon, matan is praphoron,” praphoron  in Greek meaning dowry.  Likewise in Midrash Sekhel Tov on Genesis 34:  Mohar is nadan, which means dowry, and matan is the addition to the dowry.”  See Epstein, loc. sit., p. 51, note 2.

[12] Mishnah, Ketubbot 5.1.

[13] For example, in a ketubbah  from Eastern Europe the sum of money was written in zekukim, an ancient Polish coin; in Western Europe and Italy the sum was expressed in liras; in Morocco in doros; in India, ropia; in Yemen, keresh; in Russia, silver rubles; in Iraq, dinars.

[14] Rabbenu Samuel ha-Levi Segal, Nahalat Shiv’ah, Bnei Brak 2006, Vol. 1, 12.31, pp. 249-290; Rabbi Judah Kalmar, Tosefet Ketubbah, Jerusalem 1990, pp. 13-16; Gershon German, “Shi’arukh ha-Ketubbah,” Tehumin 25, Alon Shevut 2005, pp. 195-203.

[15] Tosefot, Ketubbot 54b, s.v.af al pi”:   “It is surprising that nowadays it is customary for the groom to write that he gives the bride one hundred lira, even though he himself does not have to his name as much as a perutah.”

[16] A court in the United States ruled explicitly, “Even for Orthodox Jews the ketubbah is a ceremonial document and not a binding monetary instrument.”   See:   Rabbi Matityahu Broyde and Rabbi Jonah Reiss, “Erkah shel ha-Ketubbah,” Tehumin 25, Alon Shevut 2005, pp. 180-189, note 35.

[17] Moshe Amar, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri be-Kehilot Morocco – Sefer ha-Takanot, Jerusaelm, p. 270.

[18] Resp. Iggerot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer 4.91 (with slight linguistic changes).  An extreme case of an exaggerated sum for a ketubbah came up for deliberation in the Rabbinical Court in Haifa in 1991 (Rabbinical Court Rulings 15, p. 211), in which the husband undertook an obligation in the sum of 240 million NIS.   In this case the rabbinical judges ruled that the man only had to pay the woman $10,000.

[19] Rabbi Shlomo Dikhovsky, “Sekhum ha-Ketubbah – Hatza’ah le-Nusah Metukkan,” Tzohar 17, Winter 2004, pp. 25-29.