Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Contract law

In a traditional Jewish wedding the groom signs a ketubah, a contract, and gives it to the bride. It becomes her property forevermore. It is a sacred element of their union. It enumerates the financial and emotional responsibilities of the husband to his wife and is given to the bride that she should always remember her value in his eyes. It is an ancient contract; so ancient that the Talmud teaches that Isaac's status in his family was stronger than his half-brother because his own mother had a ketubah. Similarly the difference between King David's wife and concubines was clear by which woman held a ketubah. It's a device so ancient that the traditional text isn't even in Hebrew, it's in Aramaic.

One of my very favorite concepts in the practice of Judaism is hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah. We are taught that the rituals we perform are elevated in God's eyes by doing them in a beautiful manner. As such we say the blessing over wine each Friday night to begin the Sabbath not just with wine in any regular wineglass but in an ornate silver chalice. The prayer shawls that men and some women wear are silk or wool; woven, embroidered, embellished. The candlesticks that hold the candles I light each Friday night to usher in the Sabbath are made of silver, formed like fluted columns and covered in delicate etching and floral bands. They're nearly two feet tall.

So when we were preparing to get married I did what many brides I know did: I commissioned our ketubah. It's beautiful and delicate and we hang it proudly in our family room. No: I hang it proudly; it's mine, not ours. It's on handmade paper that has multicolor fibers and flower petals embedded in the grain. Its ornamental design is hand-drawn and its text is hand-calligraphed.

So I commissioned this contract to be written out in this ancient language that the lovely husband certainly can't read but he did his duty to me, eight years ago today, the day he was promoted from 'cute guy I talk to too much on the phone' to official 'lovely husband' status. He signed it in front of our two appointed witnesses, both of whom, coincidentally, have since become ordained rabbis. He displayed it in front of our entire wedding party and that night he gave it to me.

So what does our ketubah say? It says all the things it's supposed to say, of course, but does it say anything else? Anything extra? He'll never really know. But for eight years now I have been known to protest current events by saying something like, "but dude! I have a ketubah!"

Ah, my love, my lovely husband. Thank you for caring for me and keeping me happy, as contractually obligated. Thank you for these eight years and the eight or so more decades I expect from you. And thank you for assigning me the rights in perpetuity to stick my cold toes in the backs of your warm knees.

Happy anniversary, gorgeous. Pin It