A social structure is not only a way of life, it is a way of belief. It is not a coincidence that the institution of the family is the centerpiece of Torah society.
What is a family? It is a union of individuals who relate to each other by virtue of birth. Being born into a family is not an act of free will; Chazal say even one’s spouse is predestined. Accepting responsibilities under these preordained conditions is the mindset of a functioning family.
However, in modern society the “right to choose” is interpreted as the individual’s right to absolute independence in all areas of life. This approach has reshaped the social construct of the family. “Husband,” “wife,” and “child,” originally identifying people who lived as an integrated family unit, became mere social categories for people who hold individual rights and identities. The repercussions in social and legal terms are enormous.
Once, a woman’s participation in the workforce, at home or in public social services, was free of charge, financially secured by the income of her husband or other male family members. But the clarion call of “equal opportunity” has turned this system upside down; the service ethic that supported civil society and public service has withered. Although families remain central to the care of the old and sick, every service, even motherhood, is viewed as employment for pay. The role of the wife in running the home and raising the children is seen as a “job,” much like the one her husband holds, by which she “earns” a share of her husband’s assets. The security of the family is replaced by the tenuous bonds of a social system, and family income is not necessarily a joint account.
The institution of family according to Torah is very different. It is a full union with a clear distribution of responsibilities. Halachic regulation is in tune with a society where women enjoy the needed security to carry out duties that have no remuneration. Ordinary household tasks, as well as maintaining stability in times of family crisis, have no price tag attached, but they are indispensable. Therefore, the monetary and legal duties of spouses are lopsided, favoring the wife at the expense of the husband. It frees the wife from any responsibilities outside the confines of the home while entrusting her with the stability of the family.
This attitude is clearly reflected in the main legal document of a Jewish family, the kesubah. The purpose of the kesubah is to state the husband’s monetary and marital obligations and to secure the wife’s future in case of divorce or the husband’s death; it makes no reference to wages she earns while married. He has to secure her future, not vice versa.
Life for today’s Torah-true woman hardly reflects this arrangement. Most women hold down a part-time job at the very least, besides managing regular family business, and it is often their income that makes ends meet. Nevertheless, the kesubah remains in its original form. The wife’s contribution to the household is certainly halachically noticed, but it does not alter the kesubah. Although mainly a legal text, the kesubah is also a statement of belief in Torah standards of life.
The duties of marriage obligate the husband — besides basic marital obligations — to assume sole responsibility in all material matters. He must provide food, shelter, clothing and necessary medical treatment, pay for legal troubles such as redeeming from captivity, even accept responsibility for a proper funeral. Those obvious commitments of support, although legally binding, don’t need the contractual condition of the kesubah and are referred to in general terms.
The main monetary obligation of the kesubah is a debt of two hundred silver coins called zuz as a guarantee of his marital commitment. In Talmudic times this amount was equivalent to a person’s yearly needs, keeping him above the poverty line. The kesubah creates a lien on the husband’s assets, guaranteeing its collection from his assets in case of divorce, in his lifetime or even after his death.
The kesubah additionally includes tosfos kesubah, the husband’s legal liability (among other things) for the nedunya, the dowry which the woman brought to the marriage. It is the amount of tosfos kesubah that was adjusted over generations according to the changing minimum annual living expense, serving as an additional safeguard for the husband’s marital commitment.
In the standard Ashkenazi kesubah of our days, the obligations of the tosfos kesubah are recorded in a generic way. The sum of masayim sekukin kesef — one hundred sekukin of silver — is the amount of a hypothetical dowry and is matched equally by the husband, totaling two hundred silver sekukin. The weight in our measurements varies (among the poskim) between approximately 57 kilograms of silver or much less, hardly matching the yearly needs of a person in present times.
Eventually it was the cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom banning polygamy and involuntary divorce that fundamentally changed the basic halachah in divorce. In order to equalize the rights of the husband and wife to divorce, it was necessary to restrict the rights of the husband and prohibit unilateral no-fault divorce. Among the Sephardim, who did not accept cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom, the contemporary tosfos kesubah is often a negotiated sum of money and assets that considerably exceeds the minimum of a yearly pension.
The commitments of the kesubah don’t cease with the husband’s passing from this world. If a widow does not claim the kesubah, for the rest of her life she (and her single young daughters from this marriage) may maintain their accustomed lifestyle at the expense of the estate.
In a real-life situation of divorce or widowhood, the actual sum paid out is seldom the recorded amount of the kesubah. The many unfortunate circumstances of a divorce process often create a payment schedule that has more to do with the particular situation — like child support — than with the amounts of the kesubah document. Similarly, in most instances, a widow will receive money according to a will, or will already have taken possession of assets in her husband’s lifetime which by far surpass the amount of a kesubah.
The dowry is the wife’s contribution to the marriage. Traditionally the gift of the wife’s parents to the newly married couple, it actually includes all of her possessions, unless stipulated otherwise at the time of the wedding.
A dowry can come in two forms. The first form is money that remains hers — nichsei melug; the husband has rights to the profits earned from this money during the marriage. Money that she receives as a gift or as an inheritance is in this category.
The second form is written in the kesubah — nichsei tzon barzel; this property the husband may use. However, should the property be lost, stolen or destroyed, the husband is responsible to return to his wife, upon death or divorce, the value of the original property.
A wife may not sell either of these types of property without her husband’s permission. Neither may a husband sell the first type of dowry without his wife’s permission since it is still hers.
As an incentive for her parents to provide her with a sizable dowry, it remains her property even if she should die before her husband. Although her husband inherits her assets, the male children from this marriage inherit her kesubah and dowry after their father dies (even if he remarried) and therefore enjoy a preferential share in the estate.
The insistence of Chazal that a married woman owns money but is freed from the responsibility to manage it is consistent with a social order that emphasizes integration of the family without depriving the wife of her own private possessions.
The public reading of the kesubah is a central event at a wedding, placing the husband’s monetary obligation on equal footing with the sanctity of the marital bond. In fact, it is forbidden for a Jewish couple to live together without a kesubah. It is a powerful and descriptive message about the true equality of spouses who share equal responsibility for each other and their family-to-be.
A footnote: In the so-called “egalitarian kesubah” drafted by the Conservative and Reform movements, both prospective spouses commit to each other, financially and otherwise, in the same fashion and language. As such, the spouses don’t complement but duplicate. Not just a sorry message of total misunderstanding of Jewish values and beliefs, this attitude defies nature, in which different creatures don’t duplicate but complement each other. Duplication causes waste; complementing one another is creation.