One of the most important laws of Jewish marriage is the requirement for a ketuba, the marriage contract. So great is the importance of this document that the couple are not allowed to be alone together without one, even if a marriage ceremony is performed. (SA EHE 66:1.) This prominence is given expression in the customary wedding ceremony by reading the ketuba aloud under the chuppa, the canopy.
While the ketuba does stipulate certain obligations of the husband during married life, starting out with the requirement to work to support the wife, the main significance of the ketuba is the obligation for the husband to pay his wife a stipulated sum if she is divorced or widowed (SA EHE 66:6). It seems surprising, perhaps even dismaying, that at the very beginning of the couple's married life we give such prominence to a document which is mainly devoted to arrangements for its demise.
It is true that nowadays there is greater awareness of the importance of making such arrangements, and legal experts today recommend that all couples make pre-nuptial agreements. But nobody expects these agreements to be trumpeted to the wedding guests!
The Talmud seems to resolve this conundrum by explaining that the main importance is not to arrange for a divorce but on the contrary to prevent one. "The reason for the ketuba is so it should not be a light thing in his eyes to divorce her" (Ketubot 11a and elsewhere). That is, the prospect of the substantial monetary loss is a deterrent to divorce.
However, we must admit that this seems a very partial resolution of the problem. In the end, we seem to be proclaiming that the bright future of this couple is being safeguarded not by the enduring emotional commitment of groom and bride but rather by the threat of monetary loss. While this is some- what better than starting married life by arranging for its termination, it still seems to be far less than ideal.
Rebbe Natan of Breslav provides a deeper insight into the ketuba. He explains that it is impossible to base marriage solely on the most exalted feelings of unity; the true sanctity of a marriage is proven precisely by its ability to express the supernal aspects of the couple's togetherness in the more mundane aspects of life. He writes: "The holy union among the people of Israel is very, very exalted; ...husband and wife are joined together in the ultimate unity... But it is impossible to remain thus forever." Since the Creator wants us to be earthly human beings and not angels, the couple must spend a large fraction of their life together "down to earth", occupied with mun- dane matters.
Therefore, it is essential that the wedding arrangements themselves create unity both at the highest spiritual levels, as expressed by the kiddushin, the sanctification which is the essence of the wedding ceremony, as well as at the more mundane level of economic necessity. In this case, the economic bond is created both by the monetary incentive to remain together as well as by the fact that the economic connection between husband and wife persists even when the physical connnection ceases, by virtue of the ketuba payment; thus at this basic level the union is certain to be a lasting one.
In fact, Rebbe Natan explains, this is the true distinction between the holy and the unholy. The unholy also has roots in the highest levels of spirituality together with holiness, but this clinging to holiness unravels when these tendencies find expression in everyday life. "Here below, the Other Side sepa- rates and is cut off from holiness." But what is truly holy is able to cleave to holiness and remain united even though it is fending for itself, so to speak, in the complexity of our everyday experience.
We see from Rebbe Natan's insight that Jewish tradition affirms that the romantic union of husband and wife has an inherent and profound element of holiness. But this holiness can only be safeguarded and kept from descending into license and impurity when this exalted unity of man and woman is not limited to this emotional or even spiritual union but rather is compelled to extend also to everyday matters.
As an example, Rav Natan gives the case of Amnon and Tamar. Amnon had a deep, existential desire for together- ness with Tamar. But because this con- nection was based solely on sentiment and physical attraction Amnon's love turned to hatred as soon as his desire was fulfilled, "for the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her." (Shmuel II 13:15.)
The enduring holiness of the Jewish marriage is precisely that from the very start it provides for the unity of husband and wife at all levels - spiritual, emotional, and material. (A similar idea is found in the recent column on braiding hair on Shabbat, TT Ki Tisa 5763.) - (Based on Likutei Halakhot Breslav, Ketubot I)
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