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The Art of Marriage

Recently, we featured a blog post exploring how design lends meaning—or fails to lend meaning—to marriage licenses. Susan’s wry takeaway was that modern marriage licenses lack the beauty and solemnity of previous ages, which goes right along with our high divorce rate.

I don’t have a solution for marital woes, or bad design, but there is another side to this conversation.

The ketubah is the name for the Jewish marriage contract (the plural is ketubot). Its use began about 2,000 years ago, so I’d say it has a pretty good track record.

It’s a purely legal document. Even today, among traditional Jews at least, it’s written in Aramaic and signed by witnesses. If you’re looking for romance, passion, or even affection, you had best look elsewhere.

In its defense the ketubah does give the bride specific legal rights. If the groom wants a divorce (and, duh, granting an Orthodox divorce is still a male prerogative), he has to pay up. A ketubah is at heart part marriage contract, part pre-nup.

Once upon a time, you had to find a scribe to write your ketubah, and its beauty or lack thereof depended on his skill (“his” because, duh, being a scribe was a male prerogative).

While the wording of the ketubah was traditionally standardized, its design has always been an expression of personality, culture, and community. Jews with roots in Yemen, Morocco, Persia, Rhodes, and Venice all put a distinctive local spin on its visual aspect.

In medieval and Renaissance Italy, we begin to see illuminated ketubot. Intricate cut-paper designs often showed up in Eastern Europe.

My American parents’ post-WWII ketubah is a fill-in-the-blank affair that feels depressingly similar to the sad examples Susan noted, despite its “correct” language.

But—but!—a generation later my husband and I commissioned a female artist to design our marriage contract. It’s done in watercolors, speaks to our specific memories and hopes, and contains zero Aramaic.

Civil marriage may be necessary to a civil society, but that’s no reason to limit ourselves artistically. If you’re planning a wedding, consider that a beautiful marriage contract (ketubah or otherwise) will express your hopes a lot better than that color scheme you’ve been fussing over.

And if you’re already married, a work of art designed by the two of you will honor a special anniversary a lot better than wood, pewter, or clocks. (Seriously, clocks? Where do these lists come from?)

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