Would you ever think to frame your prenuptial agreement and hang it prominently in your home?
If your ketubah is so displayed, you’ve done just that. The ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract, was a wonderful innovation to ensure that men provide their wives with the essentials during their marriage and to protect women in the event of the husband’s death or divorce. Prior to the marriage the contracting parties would spell out the husband’s obligations to the wife, often with references to live stock. The idea of planning for unwelcome contingencies and defending the vulnerable is great, and we can be proud of how progressive early Judaism was. Today’s prenuptial agreement shave the same function and have the added benefit of being egalitarian. But they’re not romantic. And even if you were to have an artist and a calligrapher beautify your pre-nup, would you really want it hanging above the mantle?
Enter the arubah. Why not retain the sober ketubah to preserve our tradition’s ancient attempt to handle the financial aspects of the worst-case scenarios, and create another document intent and the sanctity of tradition. The ketubah is not immoral. It’s just inadequate. So rather than dispense with it, why not supplement it?
Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism, has created a hybrid document that honors halachah (Jewish law) but emphasizes that the marital relationship transcends the mundane. Although Adler’s B’rit Ahuvim, or Lovers’ Covenant, is a wonderful example of combining traditional halachah with modern sensibilities, the B’rit Ahuvim has the disadvantage of abandoning the traditional document that has signified Jewish marriages for thousands of years. And in our own case, since my wife and I flirt with the prospect of aliyah, not having a traditional ketubah might get us, or our future children, in trouble with the Orthodox religious establishment. So, as Kohelet says, “Two are better than one”
Arubah conjures up pictures of mutual support. The Hebrew root, ayin, resh, bet has a wide range of meanings. The most well-known sense of this root is erev, as in erev tov, good evening. Evening is when day and night mix together and even out, when each element brings what is uniquely wonderful about it and contributes that to the new mixture.
This image of mixing together is what provides the root with a sense of responsibility. For when things are all mixed in, what happens to one happens to all. The rabbinic expression, Col Yisrael sZeh V’zeh, All of Israel is responsible for one another (b. Shevuot 39a), captures the sense that we’re in this together. Ideally, that’s the way a marriage works—each partner feels responsible for the well-being of the other. And since witnesses sign the arubah, there is also an element of communal responsibility that is reflected through their participation. (Our arubah witnesses were different from those who signed the ketubah, thus multiplying the honors and widening the circle of community for both our wedding and our marriage.)
The dictionary definition of arubah is a pledge or a guarantee. The arubah can serve as a pledge to your partner spelling out your responsibilities for one another. What is each of you bringing to the other in this holy union? And how can your spouse support you best? A ketubah is not the right place for wedding vows; it’s more appropriate for sheep and cows.
We borrowed some lines from Anita Diamant’s The New Jewish Wedding, where site offers examples of new formulations for arubot: “I promise to build with you a home faithful to the teachings of Torah, reverent of the Divine, and committed to deeds of loving kindness. I promise to try always to bring out in myself and in you the qualities of forgiveness, compassion, integrity and humility.” Each year on our anniversary, we reread our arubah to recommit ourselves to those pledges. Rereading a traditional ketubah would remind us, among other things, of how much it would cost to get adivorce. Although, in keeping with the intent of the traditional ketubah, we do make passing reference in our arubah to such possibilities and to the documents that spell out their financial formalities.
The other sense of the ayin, resh, bet root is that of sweetness. Two of the places where we find such words are in the prayer book. In the morning service we ask God to make the words of Torah sweet in our mouth. That’s a sweetness that radiates from the palate throughout the body. It’s sensual and, literally, mouthwatering. (The Hebrew expression for delectable is arev lachech.) Love, like Torah, is addicting. It’s so sweet we need to keep coming back for more.
At the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat, we come across our root again in the first stanza of Yedid Nefesh:
Soul mate, loving God, compassion’s gentle source, Take my disposition and shape it to Your will. Like a darting deer will I rush to You. Before your glorious Presence humbly will I bow. Let your sweet love (ye-erav) delight me with its tlirill. Because no other dainty will my hunger still.(Siddur Sim Shalom)
The Kabbalists, among them the author of this love song, understood that Shabbat was the regular re-enactment of the marriage between the male and female aspects of divinity which mirrored the earthly marriage. So when we sing Yedid Nefesh each Friday evening, the line “Ye’erav lo yedidutach” will trigger associations with our own arubah and chuppah, transporting us to the sweet space where we become, again and again, chatan and callah.
Now let’s mix it all up. We have the combining of our lives. There’s responsibility and interconnectedness. And then the sensual sweetness that finally blossoms into sexual longing in the lines of our Kabbalistic poet. Altogether, arubah might be translated as a pledge of sweet partnering. But why translate it? That’s the beauty of the Hebrew. Who translates ketubah?
Although the word, ketubah, might not be translated, it is frequently read between the two parts of the marriage ceremony. Again, why interject the most unromantic possibilities right into the middle of a wedding? Let’s live in the moment until the glass shatters. When our arubah was read under the chuppah, we noted that as God creates the world through speech, our new world was similarly being spoken into existence.
My wife and I have a traditional ketubah, purchased for$ 1.50, which lives in a manila folder in a file cabinet. Next to that manila folder is another more expensive document, drafted by an attorney, which serves a similar function. We hope never to look at either. But above the fireplace hangs the arubah, which bears our images and ideals, drafted by a modern Bezalel filled with “a divine spirit of skill,” Elaine Adler. No cows, but there are caterpillars and butterflies.
Shai Cherry is the Mellon Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University. He also teaches for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Nashville