Today we have a Shtar Halitza, which we might translate Contract promising release from levirate marriage. If you recall, Torah says that if I marry Reuven and he dies childless, I have to marry his brother Shimon in order to have children in Reuven’s name. If Shimon isn’t keen on that idea, he does halitza and frees me to go and marry Uri.

If you think about it, levirate marriage brings up some pretty unholy tensions. If Shimon wants to marry me because I’m awesome, that’s kind of icky because I’m his brother’s wife. On the other hand, if Shimon wants to marry me only to do his holy duty of getting a child on me, that’s pretty miserable for me. So in general it’s much better that we should do halitza and just not go there.

Halitza becomes the standard expectation (read this article, A Writ of Release (Weisberg & Sarna), for a lot of background and interesting stuff), but if I don’t have halitza, I’m not free to marry someone else. Religiously speaking. So, if Shimon doesn’t want to give me halitza, I can’t marry someone else. This gives Shimon a horrible amount of power over me, and many men took to requesting extortionate fees from their brothers’ widows.

So, communities had an idea! Before I get married, I should get a contract from Shimon and Levi and all my beloved’s brothers, promising that they won’t do anything of the sort.

Here’s the contract that Jeanette, daughter of Nathan Marcus haCohen Adler, had with the brothers of Ascher Anschel Stern:

זכרון עדות שהיתה לפנינו עדים ח”מ ברביעי בשבת שלשים יום לחדש ניסן שהוא ראש חודש אייר שנת חמשת אלפים ושש מאות וחמש עשרה לבריאת עולם למנין שאנו מנין כאן עיר המבורג איך שבאו לפנינו האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שי’ בני המנוח מה”ו מאיר שטערן ז”ל ואמרו לנו הוו עלינו עדים כשרים ונאמנים וקנו מאתנו בק”ג אג”ם וכתבו בכל לשון של זכות ויפוי כח המועיל ואף חתמו ותנו ליד מ’ יענטא תי’ בת הרב בק”ק לאנדאן והמדינה מה”ו נתן אדלער הכהן אשת אחינו הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל להיות לה בידה לעדות ולזכות ולראיה

On April 19th, 1855, in Hamburg, the brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov, sons of Meir Stern, appeared before us, and instructed us to be true and fit witnesses, and we took from them a symbol of acceptance, and wrote in fit and legal language and signed and delivered to the hand of Miss Yenta, daughter of the rabbi of the community of London and the Empire Nathan haCohen Adler, the wife of our brother, rabbi of the community here, Ascher, who is known as Anschel, for her to keep as proof.

[Note the Ashkenazic spelling of "London". This isn't standard; the usual way is לונדון because the Sephardim got there first and established the spelling. These Hamburgers were evidently very Ashkenazic.]

It’s also interesting that the lady is Yenta. The family tree wonks at think that the woman who is married to Ascher-Anschel Stern and the daughter of Nathan Adler is named Jeanette. Certainly she could have used both Yenta and Jeanette, but why aren’t both on the document? Did she start using Jeanette at some time after her marriage?

איך שרצינו ברצון נפשינו הטוב שלא באונש והכרח כלל כי אם בלב שלם ובנפש חפיצה ובדעה שלימה ומיושבת והננו מודים בנפשיכם היום כמודים בפני ב”ד חשוב וראוי בהודאה גמורה שרירא וקיימא דלא להשטאה ודלא שלא להשבעה ודלא להשנאה ודלא למהדר ביה מן יומא דנן ולעלם.

That we desire, of our own free will, not coerced or forced, but with a whole and complete heart, a free soul and a complete, settled understanding. And these declarations shall be as those made before a great bet din, absolutely fitting testimony, valid and binding, not a joke, and not a shavua, and not with intent to be bad for her, and not with intent to benefit her, from this day and forever.

איך שאם ח”ו יעדר וימות אחינו הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל הנ”ל בעלה של מרת יענטא הנ”ל בלי זרע קיימא ותהיה אשתו מרת יענטא הנ”ל זקוקה לחלוץ.

That if, God forbid, our brother the aforementioned rabbi of this community here Ascher who is known as Anschel, husband of the aforementioned Miss Yenta, should pass and die with no viable issue, and the aforementioned Miss Yenta should be in need of halitza.

אזי מתי שתתבע אותנו לחלוץ לה מחיובים אנחנו לפוטרה בחליצה כשרה והגונה בחנם שלא נקח ממנו* ומכל ב”כ אפילו שוה פרוטה בעולם תיכף ומיד אחר כלות שלשה חדשים להעדרו של אחינו הרב בק”ק פה אשר המכונה אנשיל בעלה הנ”ל ח”ו כשתהיה ראוי לחלוץ. ובלבד שהיבמה תלך אחר היבם וכל זמן שלא נפטרנו בחליצה כשרה בחנם כנ”ל תהא היבמה נזונית מניכסי מיתנא ומוחזקת בהן.

That when she should request of us halitza, we will be bound to free her with a fit and valid halitza ceremony, freely, and we will not take from him ["Him" is probably a typo, compare the text in the Nachalat Shiva, siman 22, some thirty years later than this document] or from her representative even the value of a pruta, ever. As soon as three months have elapsed since the passing of our brother the aforementioned rabbi of this community here Ascher who is known as Anschel, her husband, God forbid, when she is free to conduct halitza. This provided that the woman comes to the man. While we have not freed her with a fit, freely-granted halitza as above, the yavamah will be sustained from the estate of the deceased and shall control it.

Wives in Jewish law don’t inherit automatically, brothers do; this stipulation makes it inconvenient for them to withold halitza.

כל הא דלעיל קבלו עליהם האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שטערן שי’ הנ”ל בחרם חמור ובשבועה דאוריתא ובת”ך בפועל ממש על דעת רבים שלא יהא התרה והפרה כלל כי אם על דעת אשת אחיהם מרת יענטא תי’ הנ”ל בביטול כל מודעות ובפיסול כל עדי מודעות עד עולם בכל לישנא דאמרי רבנן דפוסלין ומבטלין בהון מודעות. ושטר חליצה זה לא יפסול ולא יגרע כחו בשום ריעותא וגריעותא בעולם מכל מה שהפה יוכל לדבר והלב לחשוב ולהרהר.

All the above the aforementioned brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov Stern, accepted upon themselves [various phrases meaning that this is Serious Business] that it shall never be annulled or revoked except by the will of the wife of their brother, Miss Yenta, in annulling all admissions and invalidating all witnesses to admissions, eternally, in language used by the rabbis to annull and invalidate such admissions. And this shtar halitza shall not be invalidated nor its strength lessened by any means at all ever, by anything the mouth can say or the heart think.

ויהא הכל נידון ונדרש לטובת ולזכות וליפוי כח בעלת השטר. וידה על העליונה ויד המערער על התחתונה. ויהא כח לשטר זה כאלו נעשה בב”ד חשוב דלא כאסמכתא ודלא כטופסי דשטרי וקנינא מן האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שי’ בני המנוח מאיר שטערן ז”ל למרת יענטא תי’ בת הרב בק”ק לאנדאן והמדינה מה”ו נתן אדלער הכהן נר”ו אשת הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל נר”ו בן מה”ו מאיר שטערן ז”ל על כל מה דכתוב ומפורש לעיל במנא דכשר למקניא ביה. הכל שריר וקים.

And all this is to be judged and interpreted for the good and the benefit and the strengthening of the holder of the shtar. And her hand is above and the hand of any appellant below. And the strength of this shtar shall be as if it were made by a great bet din, and is is not asmachta and not a mere formalism. And we made kinyan from the aforementioned brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov, sons of Meir Stern, on behalf of Miss Yenta, daughter of the rabbi of the community of London and the Empire Nathan haCohen Adler, the wife of our brother, rabbi of the community here, Ascher, who is known as Anschel, son of Meir Stern, concerning all that is written and expounded above, with an appropriate instrument; all is valid and binding.

I find it interesting how hard this document insists that it REALLY IS REAL AND PROPER OKAY. That sounds to me like the language of something aware that it’s standing on shaky ground, something trying rather too hard to sound real. It seems like it’s trying too hard to say “I am enforceable, dammit! Don’t you dare ignore me!”, which I think was probably its main problem. It’s not something I’m aware of being done today.

Weisberg and Sarna seem to suggest that the State of Israel’s declaring halitza mandatory has something to do with it, that and the Holocaustic wiping-out of most communities where it was done. Also I think perhaps longer life expectancies, smaller families, and rising divorce rates have made refusal to grant a get more of a problem. It’s a similar problem; rabbinic courts these days tend to lack enforcement methods, so if a guy says “Shan’t” there’s not a lot you can do about it.

The catalogue number for this piece is SCN DR10-R36, and it says that Jeanette is Yenta bat “Edgar haKohen”, an error which I trust will be fixed post-haste. A little further into the drawer, DR10-R43 contains both of Johanna bat Shraga’s wedding documents, her ketubah and her shtar halitza from her groom’s brothers–I didn’t photograph them because they’re in completely impenetrable handwriting–doubtless Jeanette’s ketubah is somewhere, but I don’t know where.

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Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see larger image.

DR4-L5 is a pre-printed ketubah from Russia, 1857, with gaps left for the names and date. We do this today. Nice to know we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The ketubah’s in a folder with the passport of its owner, who was a cantor. One supposes he travelled a bunch; you’re supposed to take your ketubah with you when you go away travelling, so presumably he kept it tucked inside his passport.

A loyal reader translated the Russian at the bottom for us. It says:

An example of the property registered by Jews for their wives
Printing permitted.— Wilno, January 8, 1857. Censor, A. Mukhin
WILNO, in the Typography of R. M. Romm. 1857

I didn’t know that Hebrew printing in mid-nineteenth-century Russia was censored. Lots of governments have historically been suspicious of ethnic groups printing things in foreign languages, and they employ bilingual people as censors, but I’d not considered Russia. It makes sense, given that restrictions on Jews were piling up.

Thanks, Amir E. Aharoni! (Visit Amir’s blog at

Concerning the text itself, I typed it out for you, so that you can see it’s basically just the same as today’s regular ones. I didn’t transcribe the handwriting.

____בשבת__________ לחודש_______ שנת חמשת אלפים שש מאות ________ לבריאת עולם למנין שאנו מונין כאן____________ איך ________________ אמר לה להדא בתולתא ______ בת _____ הוי לי לאנתו כדת משה וישראל ואנא אפלח ואוקיר ואיזון ואפרנס יתיכי ליכי מוהר בתוליכי כסף זוזי מאתן דחזו ליכי מדאורוותא_____________ ומזוניכי וכסותיכי וספוקיכי ומיעל לותיכי כארח כל ארעא: וצביאת מרת _______ בתולתא דא והוית ליה לאינתו: ודין נדוניא דהנעלת ליה מבי______ בין בכסף בין בזהב ובין בתכשיטין במאני דלבושא בשמושי דירה ובשמושי דערסא הכל קבל עליו________חתן דנן והוסיף לה מן דיליה עוד מאה זקוקים כסף צרוף אחרים כנגדן: סך הכל מאתים זקוקים כסף צרוף וכך אמר_______ חתן דנן אחריות שטר כתובתא דא נדוניא דין ותוספתא דא קבלית עלי ועל ירתי בתראי להתפרע מכל שפר ארג נכסין וקנינין דאית לי תחות כל שמיא דקנאי ודעתיד אנא למיקנא נכסין דאית להון אחריות ודלית להון אחריות כולהון יהון אחראין וערבאין לפרוע מנהון שטר כתובתא דא נדוניא דין ותוספתא דא מנאי ואפילו מן גלימא דעל כתפאי בחיי ובמותי מן יומא דנן ולעלם: ואחריות שטר כתובתא דא נדוניא דין ותוספתא דא קבל עליו__________חתן דנן כחומר כל שטרי כתובות דנהיגין בבנת ישראל העשוין כתיקון חז”ל דלא כאסמכתא ודלא כטופסי דשטרי: וקנינא מן__________חתן דנן למרת________בת_______בתולתא דא על כל הא דכתוב ומפורש לעיל במנא דכשר למקניא ביה________והכל שריר וקים

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I would normally be out at gay square dancing right now, it being Tuesday evening (it’s really nice; they let straights in to dance), but I’m home nursing a cold so it doesn’t have a chance to turn into bronchitis, so I’m going to tell you about ketubot instead.

Chum R just called, see. She’s getting married to Mr R, and they want a pretty pretty ketubah. Some months ago, I gave them my usual homework: look at other ketubot and see if there’s anything that jumps out at you. Send me pictures of things you both like. This gives us a vocabulary of visual things to get started with while we all work towards designing something you want on your wall while your kids grow up.

So Chum and Mr R have discovered that he likes tree motifs, and she Very Much Doesn’t like tree motifs, and they’re a bit stumped. So to speak.

What we do is this.

Get a handle on what each person likes. What is it Mr R likes about the tree motif, exactly? Is he a botanist? Does he like the wiggly-wavy shapes leaves make? Maybe he likes fractals. Or irregular fractals. Maybe he likes the idea of tree as family. Or maybe he likes the idea of tree as enormous arching biomass. Maybe he likes green. Maybe he likes organic curves.

Why doesn’t Chum like trees? And, just as importantly, what does Chum like? What does she like about what she likes?

Sometimes it’s really hard to break down a feeling into words and ideas. But if you can do it with “I like trees because they are strong, also because I like green and the way the branches do that dividy thing” and “I don’t like trees because they’re overdone and they make me think of bugs and I like steampunk better anyway”, you can probably do it with other things such as FLOWERS or WHAT YOUR MOTHER SAID ABOUT OUR DOREEN AT PESACH THAT TIME.

Maybe we have a solution already. Maybe we can do a design which involves lots of green and has a feel of strong shapes dividing up into complex delicate ones, which overlap and twist around into the kinds of layers of repeating patterns which give the pleasant feeling of visual befuddlement which turns out to be what Chum likes about steampunk because her favourite part of steampunk is mechanical devices.

Maybe we don’t have a solution yet. So now we try to:

Identify some other visuals that both people like. Maybe you both like the teapot, or the shade of green on the bathroom mat, or the china you picked out, or the way the light and shade play together in the railings outside the shul’s windows.

Maybe we can make a ketubah based on some of those visuals instead. You are both extraordinary, complex, exciting people! Your ketubah can express your shared love of cats and the shul’s railings, and Mr R can join a botany club and Chum can take a course in clockmaking.

Or perhaps that conversation will help us learn that if the tree was kind of stylised, with purple leaves, and some rabbits in waistcoats underneath it, both parties would be satisfied. Nay, delighted.

Maybe we still need more steps. Then we:

Identify some things that both people like. You two are proposing to share some decades together. That suggests you like being together. Chances are, you like being together because you have a shared appreciation for some things. The universe is big and contains many beautiful, marvellous, wondrous things. Tell me about some of the ones you both love.

The super thing about this is that it doesn’t have to be visual. You can tell me about how much you both love the High Line Park and I can refer you to my friend Erika who does awesome papercuts and she’ll make you a papercut of the High Line out of solid awesome. (Or I can make you a High Line ketubah, but I wanted to show y’all Erika because wow.)

Back to the point–maybe some of them are visual. I can speak Visual. Visuals go together in my brain and I can think “hmm, they both like Thing1, Thing2, and Thing3. These have some Visual Elements in common. Let me assemble these Elements, free from distracting extraneous trappings, on paper!”

I can’t explain why this works, but it does often result in Good Things. “We thought we had no shared taste in visuals but we both love this” is a phrase I have heard more than once.

I like this situation a lot as a kind of metaphor for handling relationship issues, to be honest. When exploring around a problem (opposite views on trees! secretly thinking steampunk is pathetic!) we can articulate the parts that make us happy as individuals and identify the mutual soul-resonance which is WHY YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED YES and figure out how to express that as common ground and produce something lovely that gives you warm happyfeelings when you have it in your home.

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hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jul. 10th, 2012 10:28 pm)

So I did this ketubah recently. It’s round, which is a new thing for me, and it has twelve-fold radial symmetry, and it’s scrumptious (Click the image to see a bigger version).

Once it was done, it occurred to me that it would make a pretty awesome clock. You’d scan the ketubah and photoshop out the middle, and put in the numbers instead. You’d get it printed. Then you’d make a wooden base, cutting it to the shape of those pretty peaked edges. Then you’d stick the print onto the wood (I don’t know the best way of doing this–decoupage techniques?) and seal it, and then add a clock mechanism. Which would be totally yummy.

I commented as much to the happy couple, and they were unexpectedly, gratifyingly, enthusiastic.

This is where you lot come in. I know how to get a scan done; I know how to use Photoshop, and I know how to get a print made. I don’t have woodworking space.

Does anyone have the skills and wherewithal to take it from there? I don’t have woodworking space, but I’m betting there’s at least one person reads this blog who does. Speak up if you want a commission!

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(Click to see bigger)

Bride and groom,

When we started this process, you said “I don’t think it could possibly work out, but I just had to give it a try.” You asked for something you thought was impossible, and it turned into something quite lovely. May your marriage have many similar shots at seemingly-impossible targets.

The text you chose for your ketubah is a modern one, reflecting your commitment to each other as equals. Yet you chose to have it translated into Aramaic, reflecting your awareness of your heritage. May your marriage be as strongly rooted.

Your text has traditional legal language sprinkled with phrases from Tanakh. The legal language is written in an ordinary book-hand, but the Torah phrases are written in Torah script – distinctive when you look for it, but subtly blending into the broader context. May your marriage have joyous discoveries of the divine amongst the everyday.

The texts adorning the edge of your ketubah are also traditional texts for ketubot. Although the border seems to be one gloriously intricate swirl of letters, if you look carefully, you will see that the two texts are in fact still distinct. May you each preserve your individuality, yet blend together into a harmonious whole.

One of the texts is Sos asis – a haftarah for the Seven Weeks of Consolation, and also traditionally recited on the Shabbat before the wedding. It starts with Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice” and goes up to 62:10, a verse whose wordplay means it can read “Lift up a flag over the people” or “Raise a miracle over the people.” May your marriage have whichever you need of consolation and rejoicing, inspiration and miracle.

The other text is Eshet Hayil, Proverbs 31:10-31. Eshet Hayil sings the virtues of a fine wife, and in doing so it shares its vision of a well-balanced, comfortable, smoothly-functioning household. May your marriage also have this contentment.

Eshet Hayil wasn’t quite enough to fill up the space allotted to it, so I also added a line or two from the sheva berakhot, the wedding blessings – “Blessed is the one who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing…” The blessing continues: “…love and harmony and peace and companionship.” As your text contains only the beginning of the blessing, may your wedding contain only the beginning of a life of love and harmony, peace and companionship.

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A question from someone typesetting a ketubah:

“I’m using typefaces that have a hand-done feel to them, but obviously they are mechanical. There are some typefaces (Guttman Stam and Guttman Stam 1) that recreate a sofrut look. One of these uses taggin and one is plain. I have no pretension to be following sofrut laws, but I’d prefer to use a typeface that won’t look completely ridiculous or pretentious to somebody familiar with the customs of how these documents are traditionally written… Is it appropriate to use the font with the taggin as the general typeface, or are those letters with taggin only reserved for special instances of letters?”

That is…instead of going for something instantly identifiable as “font that came with your computer,” like this:


she’s going for something that is both prettier and evokes some of our more cherished solemn traditions, like this:


“I just had this nightmare scenario in mind where I had my beatuiful, tag-saturated ketubah on my wall and then became friends with someone savvy in sofrut who looked at it and saw the equivalent of an entire contract composed entirely of those giant gothic storybook letters that are supposed to come at the beginning of a paragraph in an illuminated manuscript”

Like this, that is to say:


where it ought to look like this:


The answer: in our days, tagin are letter-specific, not context-specific; they generally occur on the letters שעטנז גץ only. You can use a font with tagin without looking like an utter chump.

Now, some people do hold that since this is the script used for sifrei torah, tefillin, and mezuzot, it should be reserved exclusively for use on those documents; that using sta”m script on things such as ketubot isn’t appropriate. I don’t hold that way personally, and this isn’t even a script we’re talking, it’s a font, so it’s not really even the same thing since you basically can’t use it for sta”m anyway.* Still, something to bear in mind; if one’s community fetishises the script, best not to use it for a ketubah.

I’ve even heard the view that since this is the script used for gittin, tagin aren’t appropriate for ketubot – gittin being divorce documents and tagin apparently being a kind of bad-luck talisman when employed in wedding contexts. Except that we don’t put tagin on the letters in gittin, so that one kind of falls down at the starting post, but underneath what it’s saying, again, is that there’s a desire to keep these letters apart and special – “gittin” is just the language used to clothe that concept.

But some people** take it in the other direction, and say that since this is the script used for our most important and significant documents, it makes sense to use it for a ketubah.

Which is fair enough, so long as one does it with awareness.

* Not without some innovative responsa, anyway
** I haven’t got published sources for either of these views. This is just “I talked to some rabbi, and he said…” territory.

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“We like Rivka,” said my client, “but we’d like something more elaborate.” (Click to see bigger Rivka.)

Rivka ketubah, elaborate versionSo this is what I did. (Click to see bigger Elaborate!Rivka.)
Rivka ketubah with sparkliesNote particularly the SHINY PAINTS that sparkle in the light! I like this very much.

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hatam_soferet: (tea)
( Dec. 28th, 2010 06:10 pm)
It's a bit odd that they're ploughing the paths in the park up here in northern Manhattan when there are still unploughed bus routes in Brooklyn. I suppose a Parks Dept snowplough is smaller than a City Streets one, but still, you'd think the boroughs could find some use for them. It's certainly very nice to be able to walk in the park, but when Brooklyn-dwelling friends can't get home because the transport network's still clogged up with snow, it loses some of its savour.

My dog seems to manage fine in the snow without a jacket; when she's too cold she comes and asks to be picked up. She's okay. But I get a lot of grief from Manhattanesque dog-owners, whose dogs have several layers of clothing, not to mention boots, about letting my dog go out without a jacket. Of particular note today was the lady carrying a white fluffy dog and wearing a white fluffy fur coat. Only afterwards did I realise that "She's got a lovely fur coat on, just like you have" would have been the right response to "Doggy should be wearing a jacket."

Inspired to do a bit of ketubah work, for one of those "do the text, and we'll talk about the decoration after the wedding" affairs. I don't do those often; it's a bit of a downer at the wedding to have no pretty, and there's never really a good time per se after the wedding to do it, so they sit around for months. Still, I have inspiration for this one, which is something. Now to see if the couple like it...

non-ketubah450…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…

And the bride and groom took that and turned it into wishes for their marriage. Isn’t that nice?

My black-letter script isn’t all it could be, but I’m very happy with how the illumination turned out. As well as vine leaves, the fruit motif is carried by apples, pomegranates, acorns, and holly berries – vines for general good biblical symbolism, apples for love and because they stay good in storage, pomegranates for commandments and fruitfulness, acorns for the strength and endurance of the oak, and holly berries because they are fruitful even in the depth of winter. India ink and gouache on paper.

OK people, yes, this is not actually a ketubah. And it has Jesus in it, on account of it wasn’t for a Jewish wedding but for a Christian one. Old friend of mine. But I’m still calling it “Fun with ketubot,” because it totally counts as a sweet wedding document :-P

Click to see it bigger. Large file; be warned.

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So the last thing to do is fill in the text.

First I learned the script, copying the original quite carefully. Then I used the techniques I talked about last summer, for fitting ketubah texts into given shapes, to fit the text into the available space. Exact text blurred for privacy reasons, but you get the general idea.

kol-sassonKetubah, Modena, 1831

We didn’t use the archaic version, with its interesting currency, highly-specific place-naming conventions, and fulsome honorifics. Such things tend to scare today’s rabbis, unless they happen to have a passion for ketubot, and you don’t want to be dealing with a scared rabbi, they’re a lot of work. So we did a very standard modern text, with Lieberman clause.

If you click on the above image of the new version, you’ll be able to see the final mem, whimsically extended to bring the text into an exact rectangle. Rather fun. The original stretches the last few words; this is another way of accomplishing the same thing, that’s all.

So now we have a new incarnation of this old ketubah, spotted in an archive by my client and envisioned by him as a fresh, shiny, new ketubah. The whole thing is really rather happy and lovely. I hope someone else wants a border like this; it was jolly good fun to do, and very interesting.

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Faced with the task of copying an image from the internet and scaling it up to ketubah size, how does one go about it?

Technique from primary school. Impose a grid onto your original, and copy each square into a scaled-up grid on your target medium.


Printing the original picture gave me something on standard printer paper – a good start, but not big enough. So I marked a grid with three-quarter-inch squares onto my printout, and made a grid of one-inch squares on my paper.

The three-quarter-inch squares on the printout helped me figure out how big the target letters needed to be, and roughly how they should be spaced relative to the borders and to each other.

To do the actual letters, I spent some time learning the script, first, so that it would be a process of natural writing, rather than copying shapes square-by-square. This meant that the reproduction wasn’t quite exact, but the proportions were right, and the general look worked out nicely.


Afterwards, of course, when you’re sure the ink’s dry, you rub off all the pencil marks, and then it looks pretty scrumptious. Allowing for the skewing caused by my imperfect photography, they’re pretty much just the same – nice, eh? I like this border very much.

Ketubah, Modena, 1831kol-sasson-border

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Ketubah, Modena, 1831The ketubah text itself is a pretty standard text, with a few interesting features (click image to see bigger version; text reproduced in full below).

The date of the wedding was 7 Marhesvan 5592, or Friday October 14th, 1831. It was in Modena (which they would have pronounced Modona, hence the spelling מודונא ) – note the reference to the rivers Secchia and Panaro; this is how our most formal documents (not usually ketubot, today) locate towns. The groom’s name was Rabbi Mordechai, son of Rabbi Shimshon Mordechai Crema (deceased); the bride’s name was Bracha, daughter of Eliyahu Hayyim Modena. The currency is given as litrin; I don’t know as much about what this means as I’d like to.

The most striking variant from today’s standard text is the generous helping of honorifics. For example, where today we would say “the groom,” this text has “the glorious, honourable young man,” and followed by “may he see his children and his days be long.” “The bride” is “the respected modest young woman,” “most blessed of women in tents.” Her father is apparently also a rabbi, and his name is followed by “may God the Rock sustain him.” I rather like the extra level of formality this gives the individuals concerned, myself.

For my client, I used a text essentially similar, just more in line with “standard contemporary American” phrasing, insofar as such a phrase means anything. Further, it adds the Lieberman clause and the mothers’ names. (More about today’s standard text here.)

Here’s the text as in the 1831 version:

בששי בשבת שבעה ימים לחדש מרחשון שנת חמשת אלפים וחמש מאות ותשעים ושתים לבריאת העולם למנין שאנחנו מנין בו פה מודונא מתא דיתבא על נהרי סיקייא ופאנארא ומי מעינות בא הבחור היקר ונעים כמ”ר מרדכי יזיי”א בן המנוח כמ”ר שמשון מרדכי קרימא ז”ל ואמר לה להבחורה הכבודה והצנועה מרת ברכה מב”ת בת היקר והנכבד כמ”ר אליהו חיים מודונא יצ”ו הוי לי לאנתו כדת משה וישראל ואנא בסייעתא דשמיא אפלח ואוקיר ואזון ואפרנס ואכסה יתיכי כהלכת גוברין יהודאין דפלחין ומוקרין וזנין ומפרנסין ומכסין ית נשיהון בקושטא ויהיבנא ליכי מהר בתוליכי כסף זוזי מאתן דחזו ליכי ומזוניכי וכסותיכי וספוקיכי ומעיל לותיכי כאורח כל ארעא וצביאת הבחורה מרת ברכה בתולתא דא והות ליה לאנתו לכמ”ר מרדכי יצ”ו חתן דנן ואוסיף לה מממוניה עשרין לטרין של כסף צרוף נמצא סכום כתובתא דא בין נדוניא ותוספא ארבעין לטרין של כסף צרוף בר ממאתן זוזי דחזו לה וכך אמר לנא כמ”ר מרדכי יצ”ו חתן דנן אחריות כתובתא דא נדוניא ותוספא קבילית עלי ועל ירתאי בתראי להתפרעא מן כל שפר ארג נסכין וקנינין דאית לי תחות כל שמיא דקנאי ודעתיד אנא למקני נכסין דאית להון אחריות ואגבן דלית להון אחריות דכולהון יהון אחראין וערבאין למפרע מנהון שטר כתובתא דא נדוניא ותוספא ואפילו מן גלימא דעל כתפאי בחיי ובמותא מן יומא דנן ולעלם ואחריות וחומר כתובתא דא נדוניא ותוספא קבל עליו כמ”ר מרדכי יצ”ו חתן דנן כאחריות וחומר כל שטרי כתובות תנהיגי בבנות ישראל הבתולות הצנועות והכשרות העשויין ככל תיקוני חז”ל דלא כאסמכתא ודלא כטופסי דשטרי וקנינא אנן סהדי דחתימי לתתא מן כמ”ר מרדכי יצ”ו חתן דנן לזכות הבחורה מרת ברכה בתולתא דא תמ”א על כל מאי דכתיב ומפרש לעיל במנא דכשר למקניא ביה והכל שריר ובריר וקים

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Ketubah, Modena, 1831This design uses different sizes of letters to make a lovely rich lacy border. What are the texts it’s using?

The first text around the outside is Isaiah 61:10-62:1.

שוש אשיש בייﭏ תגל נפשי בﭏדי כי הלבשני בגדי ישע מעיל צדקה יעטני כחתן יכהן פאר וככלה תעדה כליה כי כארץ תוציא צמחה וכגנה זרועיה תצמיח כנ אד’ ﭏדים יצמיח ותהלה נגד כל הגוים למען לא אחשה ולמען ירושלים לא אשקוט עד יצא כגנה צדקה I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels. For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth.

It’s the first three verses of the haftarah associated with the Seven Weeks of Consolation, which falls out on Nitzavim or Vayelech. But it’s here in a ketubah because it’s also known as the hatan’s haftarah; in the Middle Ages it was a widespread custom for communities all over Europe and North Africa and beyond for the hatan to read this haftara in celebration of a wedding. This custom was extant at least up until the early 20th century.

There was a less widespread custom to have a special maftir for the groom as well; the verses from Hayei Sarah (Genesis 24:1-6). Traces of this custom remain among Syrian communities, who sing these verses (with Aramaic Targum) when the groom comes up to take his aliyah.

Anyway, this haftarah uses wedding imagery to describe the consolation of Jerusalem, hence its suitability as a haftarah for a hatan. In the weeks following the destruction of Jerusalem, the haftarot get more and more confident that the city will be restored, culminating in the joy of a wedding, and this haftarah.

The beautiful thing here is that in the liturgical cycle, we use the imagery of a wedding to evoke the nascent hopes of Jerusalem – but in the lifecycle, we use the imagery of the consolation of Jerusalem to evoke the nascent hopes of a marriage – as well as having this as a special haftarah in the wedding week, phrases from it feature in the celebratory meals, in the sheva berakhot.

אשת חיל מי ימצא ורחק מפנינים מכרה בטח בה לב בעלה ושלל לא יחסר גמלתהו טוב ולא רע כל ימי חייה דרשה צמר ופשתים ותעש בחפץ כפיה היתה כאניות סוחר ממרחק תביא לחמה ותקם בעוד לילה ותתן טרף לביתה וחוק לנערתיה זממה שדה ותקחהו מפרי כפיה נטעה כרם חגרה בעוז מתניה ותאמץ זרועתיה טעמה כי טוב סחרה לא יכבה בלילה נרה ידיה שלחה Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

The text in the hoops around the edge is from Eshet Hayil, the last chapter of Proverbs. Interestingly, with both this and the other texts, you’ll note that the artist stopped halfway through a verse, when he ran out of space!

למנצח על שושנים לבני קרח משכיל שיר ידידות רחש לבי דבר טוב אמר אני מעשי למלך לשוני עטסופר מהיר יפיפית מבני אדם הוצק חן בשפתותיך על כן ברכך ﭏדים לעולם חגור חרבך על ירך גבור הודך והדרך והדרך צלח For the chief musician, on “lilies.” To the sons of Korach. A Maskil. A love song. My heart is inditing a good matter: I speak of the things which I have made touching the king: my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever.

The inner layer of text is the first four-and-a-bit verses of Psalm 45, which identifies itself as “shir yedidit,” “a love song.” Sometimes it was done as the Psalm of the Day, on the day of a wedding, in place of the usual Psalm of the Day in the back of the siddur.

קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול כלה The sound of joy and the sound of celebration; the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.

And this part, the biggest letters, is from Jeremiah; it appears several times, also in the context of Jerusalem, where first it is pronounced as a doom, and later is a promise of blessing.

Next time: the text in the middle.

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Ketubah, Modena, 1831“Can you copy this ketubah?” my client asked me.

Since this is a Historical Ketubah, there aren’t copyright issues, as there would be if someone wanted me to copy a contemporary design. So I’m happy to copy it; it’s lovely!

“Copy” can mean several different things, though.

It might mean “make us a border that looks basically like this one, but write a ketubah text for our wedding.”

It might mean “make us a border that looks very much like this one, using historically-accurate materials, but write a ketubah text for our wedding.”

It might mean “make us a border that looks like this one, with historically-accurate materials and all design flaws and age-related decay, but write a ketubah text for our wedding.”

It might mean “Copy this in every detail; it is not for a wedding, it is for an historical re-enactment.”

So first one ascertains just how close to the original the client desires it. Turns out we’re doing option 1, for this project, but you see how the others are entirely plausible also.

The image here is from the archive of the Jewish National & University Library, the JNUL. (this ketubah) They have a ketubah archive online – in their words, “The ketubbot digitization project aims to create a worldwide registry of ketubbot in public and private collections throughout the world. Based on the collection of the Jewish National and University Library with over 1600 items, the project contains ketubbot originating from dozens of different countries, and covering a time period of over 900 years. It is a major resource for research in Jewish history, law and art.”

Nifty, eh? So we have this link, to an old ketubah, and now we’re turning it into a ketubah for a contemporary wedding.

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