The financial obligations of a Jewish husband

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As we have previously explained, the Ketuba is the document that records the obligations of the Jewish husband toward his wife. The text of the Ketuba is composed of three parts:

1. First, the Ketuba states the date and place of the wedding and the names of the bride and groom (see here).

2. The duties of the husband while he is married to his wife. We have summarized them by mentioning the three main Biblical obligations (see this).

3. The financial obligations that the Jewish husband undertakes towards his wife, particularly the monetary compensation that the wife would eventually receive in case, God forbid, the marriage is disolved. This part of the Ketuba is actually the most important and the longest part (approx. 75% of the whole text) of the Ketuba. The Ketuba mentions that the husband insures his wife with a compensation in case the marriage is dissolved (=divorce or death of husband). The amount of this compensation is calculated based on the following three elements.

1. Iqar Ketuba or the basic sum of the Ketuba

2. The Nedunya, or dowry

3. The Tosefet or tosafot, or additions to the main sum.

IQAR KETUBA: This is the amount of money determined by Jewish law as the minimum compensation that the wife is entitled to receive from her husband in case of dissolution of the marriage. This compensation varies if the wife is single or if she has been previously married. There is a discussion among the rabbis if this compensation is of a Biblical (Rashi) or of a Rabbinical (Maimonides) origin. This amount, also called mohar, consists of “two-hundred zuz”. Although the current monetary value of two hundred zuz is a matter of discussion among scholars, in the times of the Talmud, two hundred zuz was the amount a person needed to maintain himself or herself during a year (food, clothing, lodging, etc). In other words, “two hundred zuz” is a basic year’s salary.

NEDUNYA: The second element that compose the Ketuba is the nedunya, often translated as dowry. The nedunya includes the valuables and assets that the wife brings into the new family. The Ketuba mentions as examples: silver and gold articles, jewelry, house-utensils, bedding, etc. These articles are mentioned explicitly to show that the wife is not coming into the marriage empty handed. Technically speaking, the husband has the right to trade or use the value of the dowry as he sees fit, but he still accepts responsibility for losses. These assets become for the husband “iron sheep” (tson barzel), which in Talmudic jargon means that his financial responsibility toward them will never expire. If the marriage is dissolved, it is his responsibility to restitute the dowry or the value of the dowry to his wife.
Now, regardless of how much valuables the bride brings into the marriage as her dowry, the ancient custom is to register the dowry at the fixed sum of one hundred pieces of silver (me-a zequqim dekesef), which according to some opinions in today’s market value it will worth around $17,000. Why does the Ketuba register a fixed amount and not the amount that each bride brings into the family? This uniformity of the value of the nedunya is established to avoid any distinctions between a rich and a poor bride, and prevent embarrassment or ostentation. Thus, no matter what the actual value of what the bride brings into her marriage is, the husband obligates himself to eventually pay her back this fixed amount.

TOSEFET: The third component of the monetary compensation of the Ketuba is the tosafot or voluntary increments. There are two increments which are normally added in the Ketuba. First, the increment to the dowry, which is traditionally the equivalent of the dowry itself. In other words, the husbands duplicates the value of the dowry and commits himself to restitute his wife 200 zequqim dekesef, instead of 100.
Second, there is an increment to the main Ketuba that the husband promises his wife. In some communities they would specify the amount of this increment in local currency. In other communities, the tradition is to state that the husband adds an increment to the main Ketuba, without specifying any amount of money. This “tosefet ketuba”, a voluntary increment to the mandatory basic financial obligation, is usually set following the local customs.

As the reader can see, the sum of money mentioned in the Ketuba is not related to any money the husband “pays for his wife” or to her family to take her as his wife. The Ketuba is the equivalente of a marriage insurance, by which the husband commits that in case of dissolution of the marriage, he will pay his wife the main sum of the compensation (iqar ketuba), restitute her dowry, and pay the additional increments or additions, following the local custom.