by Yehuda Shurpin
|Detail of an ornate Ketubah (wikimedia)|
The Ketubah is the marriage contract that outlines the obligations of the husband to his wife, as well as the financial compensation due to the wife in the event of the marriage’s dissolution through divorce or widowhood. Similar to a Get (divorce document), the Ketubah is traditionally written in Aramaic, the common language of the Jews during Talmudic times.
Why was it originally written in Aramaic, not Hebrew? And why is it still written in that language today, when most of us are more proficient in English or another language?
Precise Legal Language
The importance of the Ketubah’s precise and exact language cannot be overstated, due to the legal nature of the Ketubah as well as its deeper spiritual significance.
In fact, having a properly written kosher Ketubah is so critical—not just to the marriage ceremony itself, but to married life in general—that it is problematic for a couple to live together, even temporarily, without a kosher Ketubah.1 (In the event that the document is lost or destroyed, or if a serious error is found in its text, the couple must immediately obtain a replacement from a rabbi.)
For centuries, going back to Talmudic times, the sages have pored over the Aramaic Ketubah formula, ensuring that each word is precise, and especially looking out for words that may have multiple meanings.
As with contemporary contracts, the more important the contract, the more experts you’d have review the language to tighten it and make sure it is precise. So it is no wonder that the contract for marriage, one of the most important and monumental steps that one takes in life, bonding two half-souls into one union, needs to have extremely precise language. Thus, we use the traditional Aramaic text, which has gone through the rigor of centuries of Talmudic scholars.2
Translations of the Ketubah
Although it is theoretically possible to have a Get or Ketubah in another language—if written precisely, in accordance with all the relevant laws, etc.—halachah only permits this in extreme situations.3
To be sure, there are many translations of the Ketubah, both in English and Hebrew (including on our site). And since the Ketubah is a legal document, one should certainly read a translation to understand what is written in it (or at the very least, have the rabbi explain the basics of the document).4 Nevertheless, the actual Ketubah used for the marriage should be the traditional text, ensuring that it is precise and kosher.
A Semi-Holy Language
Aside from the legal aspect of the Ketubah, there are deeper reasons for the Aramaic as well.
The Ketubah has been written in Aramaic going back to Second Temple times,5 imbuing the text with holiness and the tradition of our ancestors. Thus, using the traditional Aramaic text of the Ketubah links us and our future family to our ancestors’ rich and illustrious heritage.6
The Ketubah and the Get are actually written in Aramaic with a sprinkling of Hebrew. A document that alternates between two languages is generally invalid. So why is it OK here?
Among other explanations, Rabbi Moses Isserlis explains that Aramaic has a certain holiness to it (going back to Mount Sinai7 ) and can therefore go together with Hebrew, “the Holy Tongue.”8
In fact, parts of the Bible itself, as well as the Oral Torah as recorded in the Talmud, are written in Aramaic. Furthermore, some of the special prayers, such as the Kaddish, are also recited in Aramaic, signifying that Aramaic is considered a special and unique language.9
But why was Aramaic chosen over Hebrew?
The Angels Do Not Understand
On a homiletic level, many10 cite a Midrash regarding the time before G‑d gave the Jewish people the Torah. Wishing to keep the Torah in Heaven, some angels claimed that mere mortals could not be trusted to study the Torah. In reply, G‑d promised that the Jewish men would occupy themselves with learning Torah.
Yet, in the text of the Ketubah, the Jewish men accept upon themselves unconditionally to work their very hardest to support their wives. This can theoretically be used by the angels to bolster their case that the Jews cannot be relied upon to study Torah assiduously.
The sages teach us that the angels understand all languages except for Aramaic.11 Thus, some explain, by writing it in Aramaic we prevent the angels from using the Ketubah in their argument.
A Foundation of Peace
In a somewhat similar vein, some cite another Midrash.
When the time came for G‑d to create Adam, G‑d “consulted” the ministering angels. The Angel of Truth said, “Don’t create humans, for they will be full of lies.” The Angel of Peace said, “Do not create them, for they will be in constant strife!” What did G‑d do? He grabbed the Angel of Truth and hurled him to the earth.12
While that took care of the Angel of Truth, the commentaries ask, how did G‑d contend with the Angel of Peace?
The commentaries explain that, based on the halachah that one is allowed to bend the truth to keep the peace,13 now that the need for absolute truth had been thrown down, it was possible to maintain peace.
However, part of the text of the Ketubah reads, “I will work, honor, feed and support you in the custom of Jewish men, who work, honor, feed and support their wives faithfully.” The Aramic word translated as “faithfully,” בקושטא, literally means “in truth.” Thus, when we are creating a union that will, with the help of G‑d, result in more of mankind, we are stating that it will be with truth. This gives room for the Angel of Peace to again raise objections that there will be a lack of peace. To avoid this, we write it in a language that the angels don’t understand.14
These homiletical explanations, while not the main reasons for the Aramaic Ketubah, stress the importance of being mindful to imbue our new home with Torah and peace.
|1.||See Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 66:1-3.|
|2.||Levush, Habutz V’argoman 126:1; Get Poshut 126:8.|
|3.||Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 126:1.|
|4.||Igros Moshe, Even Ha’ezer 4:90.|
|5.||In fact, the oldest text of a Ketubah is the one in Aramaic found in Tel Maresha, Israel. The text is from the year 176 BCE during Second Temple times.|
|6.||See Pardes Eliezer ch. 32|
|7.||See, for example, Talmud, Kiddushin 49a and commentaries ad loc.|
|8.||Rama, Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’ezer 126:1.|
|9.||For a discussion about this, see Machshevot Lev, vol.1, p. 181.|
|10.||Milsa B’Taima 1:159; Mishpat Hakesuva 1:5.|
|11.||Talmud, Shabbat 12b.|
|12.||Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 8:8.|
|13.||Talmud, Yevamot 65b.|
|14.||See Pardes Eliezer, ch. 32.|
As taken from, https://www.chabad.org/tools/subscribe/email/view_cdo/i/8A35D917402345A2:D61F4DA01E4D8DA0D31393624B6CC1E209367D1F79E6AC4EA53DDE70B4282C1B#utm_medium=email&utm_source=78_rabbi_y_en&utm_campaign=en&utm_content=header