Situation #1: Custom-made
Chayim and Chani hired a renowned calligrapher, who was careful to use an approved text, to design their kesubah. Nevertheless, the kesubah still suffered from severe, non-artistic flaws.
Situation #2: Silk-screen
While shopping together before their wedding, Tamar Goldstein and her chasan, Avrohom Fishman, chose a beautiful silk-screen kesubah, without realizing that it was a Sefardic text, which is much lengthier than a standard Ashkenazic kesubah. When the kesubah was filled in, the sections that Ashkenazim do not use were crossed out and the witnesses were instructed to sign.
Situation #3: Standard Hebrew Bookstore
Marcia and Yosef used an inexpensive kesubah, but some of the areas were left blank when the kesubah was signed at their wedding.
In some of the above cases, the couple was married without a kosher kesubah. Halacha mandates that a married woman own a kosher kesubah.[i] In all of the above cases, the person supervising the filling in and signing of the kesubah was apparently unaware of the complex laws involved. How to avoid these problems is required reading for anyone planning a wedding.
Introduction to the kesubah
The Torah placed many responsibilities on a husband to guarantee his wife security in their marriage. In addition to his requirement to “honor his wife more than himself and love her as much as he loves himself,”[ii] he is also responsible to support her at the financial level she is accustomed to, even if he comes from a more modest background, and at the comfort level of his family, if he comes from a wealthier lifestyle.[iii] His support requirement allows her to devote her energies to maintaining a household and bearing and raising children without assuming responsibility for their daily bread. In return for assuming these responsibilities, her husband may use her earnings and the profits from her property to help support the family; although all property that she owned prior to their marriage remains hers, as does anything that she inherits during the marriage. She also has the option of electing to keep her earnings for herself and forego his support.[iv]
Furthermore, a husband’s responsibility is not limited to supporting her throughout his lifetime, but includes maintaining her from his property after his passing.
The kesubah is a legal document
The kesubah is a legally binding, pre-nuptial agreement whose purpose is to protect a woman’s financial interests both during the marriage and upon its termination. One of the differences between the Ashkenazic and Sefardic versions of the kesubah is that the Ashkenazic version omits many halachic details specified in the Sefardic text. In practice, omitting the mention of these details does not change the husband’s requirements to fulfill these obligations.
Although an Ashkenazic husband may specify these obligations in his kesubah, the usual practice is not to do so.
So far, there seems to be no reason why a Sefardic couple should not use an Ashkenazi kesubah, or vice versa. However, there are reasons why a Sefardi couple should not use the standard Ashkenazi kesubah without some modification. The Ashkenazic text states that the kesubah requirement of the husband is min Hatorah, a minority opinion held by Rabbeinu Tam and some other early authorities.[v] However, many authorities contend that the requirements of kesubah were introduced by the early Sages, and some major authorities contend that stating that the husband is required min Hatorah to provide a kesubah invalidates the kesubah.[vi] Since the Rama[vii] justifies the use of this kesubah by Ashkenazim, even though many Rishonim question its kashrus, Ashkenazim may continue this practice, whereas Sefardim should not, without revising the wording.[viii] (An Ashkenazi man marrying a Sefardi woman may use an Ashkenazi kesubah, and a Sefardi man marrying an Ashkenazi woman should use a Sefardi kesubah.)
A kesubah must be written following the rules established by Chazal for the creation of any shtar, a halachically-mandated document. One may write it in any language,[ix] yet the almost-universal practice is to write it in Aramaic, which is written in Hebrew characters and is halachically considered a Hebrew dialect.[x]
Anyone may write a kesubah – man or woman, adult or child, Jew or gentile, human or machine. However, two people who have the status of kosher witnesses regarding all Torah laws must sign the kesubah. In addition, the custom in many places is that the groom also signs the kesubah, a practice that dates back at least to the thirteenth century and is mentioned by the Rashba.[xi]
Halachic details involved in writing a kesubah
The halachos of writing kesubos are manifold. As I mentioned before, the kesubah is a shtar, a halachically-binding document. Chazal established very detailed rules regulating how a shtar must be drawn, most of them to make it difficult to forge or alter. Because these details are highly technical, someone writing a kesubah who is unaware of these rules will probably produce an invalid document. It is therefore very important that the kesubah be reviewed by someone well-versed in these areas of halacha. Here are some examples of Chazal’s regulations:
Everything in a shtar must be written in a tamperproof way. For example, one must write the word mei’ah (hundred) so that it cannot be altered to masayim (two hundred). This is done by placing the word in the middle of a line, not at the end, and by writing it close enough to the next word so that two letters cannot be inserted between them. A shtar may not be written on paper or with ink that can be erased without trace.[xii] One may not write words in the margin that can be easily altered. For example, one may not place the numbers shalosh (three), arba (four), sheish (six), sheva (seven), or eser (ten) in the margin, since these numbers can easily be altered to make them plural.[xiii]
The witnesses must sign the shtar close enough to the text that one cannot insert other conditions or factors above their signature.[xiv] As an additional safeguard, no new conditions or details are derived from the last line of a shtar, just in case someone figured out how to sneak a line between the end of the shtar and the witnesses’ signature.[xv] For this reason, the last line of every shtar simply reviews the basics of the transaction to which it attests; typically, the last line of a standard kesubah reviews the names of the bride and groom — all information previously noted.[xvi] The accepted practice today is to safeguard every shtar in an additional way, by closing it with the words hakol shrir vekayom, “and everything is valid and confirmed,” since no supplements are allowed after these words.
May one initial a correction?
In addition to the above examples, a shtar may have no blank spaces, erasures or cross-outs. The common, modern practice of modifying a contract by initialing adjustments is halachically unacceptable for a very obvious reason – how does this method guarantee that one party did not tamper with part of the contract already initialed by the other?
How does one correct a kesubah?
What does one do if one made a mistake while writing a shtar, or if one wants to adapt or modify a standard printed kesubah document? Must one dispose of the shtar and start over?
Not necessarily. Halacha accepts the following method of validating corrections: At the end of the shtar, one notes all the erasures and other modifications, closes with the words hakol shrir vekayom, and then the witnesses sign the shtar.[xvii] Thus, any irregularity is recorded immediately above the witnesses’ signature. If the witnesses mistakenly signed the shtar without verifying its modifications, they should place these modifications directly below their signatures and then re-sign the shtar.[xviii]
Does a mistake automatically invalidate a kesubah?
If someone wrote a shtar and did not follow Chazal’s instructions, is it valid? The Rishonim dispute whether the shtar is still valid, some contending that any shtar that does not follow Chazal’s rules is invalid. Both the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama conclude that the shtar is still legitimate, although the Rama rules this way only when it is quite clear that the shtar has not been tampered with.[xix]
I was once at a wedding where the couple had purchased a beautiful, specially-designed kesubah. While reading the kesubah before the wedding, someone noticed an error in the text of the kesubah. Can one correct this text immediately before the wedding ceremony? Fortunately for this couple, the mesader kiddushin (the rabbi overseeing the ceremony) admitted that he did not know the correct procedure for correcting text in a shtar. Instead, he presented them with a kosher, although far less beautiful, kesubah, saving the artistic one as a beautiful memento. Had he attempted to correct the kesubah, they could have spent their married lives without a kosher kesubah!
One prominent Rosh Yeshiva I know will not be mesader kiddushin. He unabashedly tells his talmidim that he has never had the opportunity to study the laws of documents thoroughly, and therefore he is not qualified to preside at a wedding. He arranges for a prominent talmid chacham to be mesader kiddushin in his stead. I give him much credit, and consider his behavior worthy of emulation.
What if the names are illegible?
Often, the names in a kesubah are written illegibly. These kesubos are invalid, since it must be clear who are the marrying parties using this kesubah.
At this point, we can already appreciate the problems that happened to the above-mentioned kesubos:
Chayim and Chani’s calligrapher used an approved text for the kesubah. Nevertheless, the kesubah still suffered from severe flaws – several words were written in such a way that they could be altered; numbers were placed at the end of the line in a way that they could be modified, and too much space was left in the middle of some lines. The result was a beautiful piece of art, but not a properly written kesubah.
Tamar chose a beautiful Sefardic kesubah, which in itself does not present a problem, provided that it was either fully filled out, or that the corrections were noted at the end. However, the person filling out the kesubah simply crossed out the remaining sections of the kesubah and then instructed the witnesses to sign. If it was indeed obvious that these parts of the kesubah were not tampered with after the signing, the kesubah is kosher, even though it was not filled in correctly.[xx] However, he should have noted at the end of the kesubah which lines were crossed through and have the witnesses sign below this declaration.
What about using a standard printed kesubah?
If a standard kesubah is arranged properly, it will reduce the incidence of many of the above-mentioned problems, but it is by no means foolproof. I have seen numerous standard kesubos improperly filled out. There are standard kesubos that have mistakes, such as placing certain information in the margin and leaving too much space between the kesubah and where the witnesses are expected to sign.
Marcia and Yosef used an inexpensive kesubah for their wedding, but some areas were still blank when it was signed at their wedding.
Obviously, one may not use a kesubah without filling in all blank spaces, since someone could subsequently add information not in the originally signed document. If areas were left blank without omitting vital information from the kesubah, then whether the kesubah is kosher or not depends on the above-mentioned dispute between the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama. Sefardim who follow the Shulchan Aruch may assume that the kesubah is kosher, notwithstanding its flaws, whereas Ashkenazim must replace this invalid kesubah as quickly as possible.
Correcting a kesubah
What does one do if, after reading this article, one checks one’s kesubah and discovers that it has one of the above-mentioned fatal flaws?
Don’t panic. Simply contact a locally available talmid chacham, telling him that you suspect your kesubah may be invalid. He will check it and rule whether it requires replacing or not. One should not replace a kosher kesubah, but an invalid one must be replaced. There is a special text to be used when replacing an invalid kesubah, called a kesubah demishtakich bei ta’usa, a kesubah in which a mistake was found, that is used in these circumstances. The talmid chacham fills in the corrected kesubah, which is then signed by two witnesses and given to the wife. The form for such a corrected kesubah is not difficult to obtain.
(Similarly, if a woman has misplaced her kesubah, the couple should have it replaced immediately. Replacing a lost kesubah is a simple procedural matter that takes a matter of minutes and should not involve any major costs. Speak to your local posek. Also, a couple who were originally not married in a halachic fashion and are now observant need to obtain a valid kesubah.)
Datelining a kesubah in the wrong place
By the way, datelining a kesubah with the wrong location does not invalidate it.[xxi] Thus, it is not of the highest importance to determine the exact legal location of a hotel or hall where a wedding is located.
What if we misspelled one of the names?
Halacha has extensive rules how to spell names, yet I have seen many kesubos with the names misspelled. Fortunately, this rarely invalidates a kesubah, and one should not rewrite the kesubah of a married couple because of this mistake.
Should we include our family names?
Many contemporary authorities feel that family names should be included in the kesubah. In fact, whether one does or not is usually dependent on local custom.
A humorous error
The kesubah states that the husband will support his wife bikushta, faithfully, with the “t” sound spelled with the Hebrew letter tes. I once saw a kesubah where the scribe misspelled the word with the letter taf, and therefore the word translates as “with a bow,” thus committing the groom to support his wife “with the bow.” For her sake, I hope that he was an expert archer or violinist. Fortunately, this kesubah is kosher, even if the groom is as talented in these areas as I am.
As we see, writing a kesubah correctly requires extensive halachic knowledge of the laws of documents, an area not as well known as it should be. Without question, this is the most common cause of so many people having invalid kesubos.
Many people place much effort into obtaining a beautiful kesubah, with stunning artwork and calligraphy. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with enhancing the kesubah in this way. One must, however, be careful that, whether beautiful or not, the kesubah fulfills its purpose as a valid shtar. After all, a non-kosher kesubah is not worth the paper on which it is written.
[i] Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 66:3
[ii] Rambam, Hilchos Ishus 15:19
[iii] Kesubos 48a, 61a
[iv] Kesubos 58b, 70b, 83a, 107b
[v] See Tosafos and Rosh, Kesubos 10a; Shu’t HaRivash #66;
Shu’t Tashbeitz 2:182; 3:301
[vi] Ramban, Kesubos 110b; Ritva, Kesubos 10a
[vii] Even HaEzer 66:6
[viii] Shu’t Yabia Omer 3:Even HaEzer:12
[ix] Gittin 11a
[x] See Rama, Even HaEzer 126:1
[xi] Commentary to Bava Basra 175a s.v. Miha
[xii] Gittin 11a; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 42:1
[xiii] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 42:4
[xiv] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 44:6, 7
[xv] See Shach 44:23
[xvi] Choshen Mishpat 44:1
[xvii] Choshen Mishpat 44:5, 9
[xviii] Rama, Choshen Mishpat 44:11
[xix] Choshen Mishpat 44:1, 5
[xx] See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 44:5
[xxi] Choshen Mishpat 43:22