The Ketubah is a husband’s obligation to pay his wife a sum of money on his death or on their divorce. The second Mishnah in Masechet Ketubot sets out the basic obligation – a payment of 200 zuz when the bride was a virgin and 100 zuz in all other cases. In the case of the husband’s death the payment is made from the husband’s estate.
There is a difference of opinion as to whether the obligation to pay the Ketubah is rabbinic or biblical. However the accepted view is that it is a rabbinic enactment with, at best, support (asmachta) from the Torah (Shmot 22:16). Why did the Chachamim enact the Ketubah obligation? The Gemara (11a) explains that the purpose of the Ketubah payment is so that the husband should know that he would have to spend a substantial amount on dissolution of the marriage and would therefore think twice before divorcing his wife.
This rationale would no longer seem to apply today given Rabbeinu Gershom’s edict (around the year 1000 CE) that a man cannot divorce his wife without her consent. Nevertheless, the Ketubah obligation is still in force today.
It is not clear why the Ketubah obligation applies upon the husband’s death. Such a payment has no impact on the ease of divorcing one’s wife and is therefore not relevant to the Gemara’s rationale for the Ketubah obligation.
The Torah exhorts us on many occasions to be very careful when dealing with vulnerable members of society. Widows and orphans are the classic example that the Torah uses. The Torah tells us (Shmot 22:21): “Don’t cause anguish to any widow or orphan”15. This commandment relates to any widow or orphan, whether rich or poor. Special consideration is called for because of the likelihood of emotional vulnerability. The memory of their loss and the experience of loneliness suggest that the widow and orphan are likely to be more in need of support and encouragement than others. Some authorities hold that this commandment applies equally to divorced women.16
The Chachamim made a number of decrees to protect orphans. For example, orphans are treated more leniently under the laws of paying damages and in certain cases the obligation of orphans to pay debts is postponed until the orphan reaches the age of maturity (which is 13 for a male and 12 for a female).
Perhaps the Chachamim extended the Ketubah obligation to widows out of concern for the welfare of the widow.
This sheds light on many of the Halachot pertaining to the Ketubah. We can see how careful the Chachamim were to protect the welfare of these potentially vulnerable people. For example:
It is forbidden for a man to continue living with his wife even for a moment without her having a Ketubah (Rambam, Hilchot Ishut 10:10).
It is forbidden to agree to a Ketubah payment that is below the minimum prescribed amount (although the husband can agree to a higher amount) (Ibid. 10:9).
The usual rule with monetary matters is that a person can agree to waive their right to receive a payment that is due to them, even for biblical matters. However the Chachamim forbade this in the case of the Ketubah payment (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha-Ezer 69:6).
Usually, Biblical obligations are denoted in Kesef Tzori (pure silver) while rabbinic obligations are denoted in Kesef Medina (1 part silver to 7 parts copper). Even though the Ketubah payment is a rabbinic obligation, the Chachamim imposed a payment calculated in pure silver17.
The size of the Ketubah payment was quite substantial. 200 zuz in Kesef Medina (which is 1/8th of 200 zuz in Kesef Tzori) is enough to purchase food and clothes for a person for a whole year (Bartenura Peah 8:8).
In studying Masechet Ketubot we should be sensitive to the compassion shown by the Chachamim to divorced and widowed women and we should bear this in mind in our dealings with all people that are less fortunate and potentially vulnerable.
15 This is mitzvah 65 in the Sefer haChinuch
16 Sema, Choshen Mishpat 97:22
17 The Rambam disagrees and rules that Kesef Medina is used for the Ketubah payment (Hilchot Ishut 10:8).
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