From Calcutta to Tarcento: Jewish marriage contracts from the collections

Jewish women, in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, have always treasured an important document: their ketubah.

Dr Stefania Silvestri, post-doctoral Research Associate at the Centre for Jewish Studies, writes:

Jewish women, in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, have always treasured an important document: their ketubah. A ketubah (pl. ketubot) is a marriage contract, drawn up before marriage, listing the obligations the groom assumes towards the bride from the moment of the celebration of the ceremony. The John Rylands Library holds a number of ketubot that exemplify the great variety of traditions and customs around the ketubah observed by different Jewish communities through space and time. As Moses Gaster, the Jewish scholar who collected most of the Rylands ketubot, pointed out in his pioneering study of marriage contracts, published in Berlin in 1923, ketubot can be researched from many different angles: one can focus on anthropology and folklore, on economic and family history, on palaeography, on art history, on onomastics and genealogy.

The earliest testimony to a ketubah is found in chapter 7 of the Book of Tobit (early 2nd century BCE), a work not included in the Jewish canon of Scripture (the Tanakh), and considered apocryphal by Protestants. In Rabbanite, that is to say mainstream Judaism, the Mishnah, the collection of rabbinic traditions edited at the beginning of the 3rd century CE, and the Babylonian Talmud, the great commentary on the Mishnah produced in the Yeshivahs of Iraq before 500 CE, record norms and regulations concerning marriage that had developed over centuries (see Mishnah Ketubot and Babylonian Talmud Ketubot). The Talmud contains highly stereotypical formulae in Aramaic which became standard in marriage contracts between the 8th and 10th centuries throughout the Jewish Diaspora, and were particularly followed in Europe. In addition to Rabbanite ketubot we also have marriage contracts from the Karaite and the Samaritan communities which broke away from mainstream Judaism, the latter in antiquity, the former in the early middle ages, and developed their own liturgical, linguistic and legal traditions. These are in distinctive Karaite and Samaritan forms of Hebrew, and, in addition, Samaritan marriage contracts are in the distinctive Samaritan Hebrew script – a late form of the old Hebrew alphabet.

Gaster Hebrew MS 2108/7: Karaite ketubah, Constantinople, 1882

The main text of the ketubah typically begins with the date of the ceremony and the place where it was celebrated, and the name of the groom and the bride, including their patronymics, which are the names of their fathers and sometimes grandfathers. In the case of Oriental manuscripts, the family tree may be traced even further back. Following this, a formula specifies that the groom is marrying the bride “according to the Law of Moses and Israel”, and stipulates the amount of the mohar, a statutory sum which the groom gives to the bride. This is usually 200 zuzim for a virgin, or 100 zuzim for a widower or a divorcee. The ketubah then lists the dowry (nedunyah), which the bride is bringing into the marriage, and the supplement (tosefet nedunyah) which the groom adds to it. Finally, after a further formulaic section, the contract is signed by at least two witnesses, and in many cases by the groom as well. The document below is an example of a handwritten model for a ketubah, where the specific details, such as the names of the parties and the amount of the dowry, have been left blank.

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 34: Tofes ketubah (marriage contract template)

The oldest extant ketubot date from the 5th century BCE and were found at Elephantine (Yeb) in Upper Egypt, near the present-day Aswan. They formed part of an archive that had belonged to a Jewish community that lived there, serving as a garrison for the Persians on the outer edges of the Persian empire. These ketubot are written on papyrus and are totally plain. But later marriage contracts were elaborately decorated, and this decoration has been one of the most studied elements of the ketubah. The first decorated ketubot were found in the Cairo Genizah, a remarkable cache of manuscripts, some going back to the early middle ages, recovered from a synagogue in Cairo. Among Jews in Islamic lands it became customary to read the ketubah aloud at the wedding ceremony and then display it, and this encouraged the practice of making it an eye-catching document. The custom of illuminating the contract spread across Europe. It gained acceptance among medieval Sephardi (Spanish) communities, and became hugely popular in 17th– and 18th-century Italy. Contracts were written within elaborate architectural frames, decorated with floral motifs and with medallions containing scenes from the Bible, and even with micrography (the technique of twisting a line of minute writing into animal shapes and grotesques).

Among the most impressive documents in the Rylands collection are surely some of its illuminated marriage contracts. The oldest ketubah in the library is one written in Italy in the city of Pesaro in 1662. Interestingly this copy is written on gevil (leather), and includes a luxuriant frame of realistic flowers and family emblems.

Gaster Hebrew MS 1655: marriage contract, Pesaro, 1662

A 19th-century ketubah celebrates the wedding of an Indian Jewish couple, held in Calcutta. All the decorative elements are reminiscent of native Indian manuscript illumination, but are specific within Jewish tradition to the Baghdadi Jews who arrived in India in the 17th century. They include the golden fish in the centre and the golden tigers at the top with a golden sun on their foreheads, as well as the peacock with golden feathers. Moreover, the long prayer for the couple in the top section of the document is typical of ketubot from India.

Gaster Hebrew MS 2009: marriage contract, Calcutta, 1852

Finally, the most beautifully illustrated ketubah in the collection was produced in a small town in the north-east of Italy, called Tarcento, in 1778. The text is surrounded by the signs of the zodiac inscribed in cut-out medallions. At the top are the emblems of the two families – a rooster with a half-moon and stars for the Luzzatos and a hand pouring water from a jug for the Levis. The cut-out net design is striking and, although rare in this area of Italy, originated “in the Italian towns of Ancona and Lugo from the eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. The artists in these towns specialized in a technique wherein the parchment was cut away to create an intricately patterned frame for the text. This technique was employed to adorn megillot, ketubbot, and a variety of Jewish wall hangings” (Cohen, Mintz and Schrijver, 252).

In 1778, when this ketubah was written and the wedding took place, Tarcento was still under Venetian rule, and the Jewish community of the town would have maintained close ties with the bigger, multicultural community of Venice. The decoration shows clear signs of Venetian influence: the architectural composition and the zodiacal medallions can be found in almost all the ketubot from that city and from the territories under its influence. It is likely that the currency indicated, though not explicitly named, was Venetian ducati. Both families must have been fairly wealthy. The bride, Sarah daughter of Israel Levi, brings as a dowry 1000 gold coins, 800 gold coins in cash, and jewels and clothes worth 200 gold coins. The groom, Samuel son of Isaac Luzzato, adds to the dowry, as tradition required, one third of this sum in cash. Little is known about the life of the bride and groom, save that they had a child 9 years after the marriage, Angelo, born in Gemona in 1787, who became a merchant in Tarcento, and in 1807 married Enrichetta, daughter of Uri Todesco, who was, apparently, a well-known dealer in wine (Tomani and Tomani, 197, note 860).

Hebrew MS 45: marriage contract, Tarcento, 1778

Further reading:

Cohen, Evelyn M, Sharon Liberman Mintz and Emile GL Schrijver. A Journey through Jewish Worlds: Highlights from the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2009.

Gaster, Moses. ‪The Ketubah: A Chapter from the History of the Jewish People. ‪Rimon Publishing Company, 1923.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith. Karaite Marriage Documents from the Cairo Geniza. Legal Tradition and Community Life in Mediaeval Egypt and Palestine. Leiden-New York-Cologne: Brill, 1998.

Sabar, Shalom. “The Beginnings of Ketubbah Decoration in Italy: Venice in the Late Sixteenth to the Early Seventeenth Centuries” Jewish Art 12/13 (1986/87): 96-110.

Tomani, Giovanni e Silvia Tomani. Ebrei nel Veneto orientale: Conegliano, Ceneda e insediamenti minori. Casa Editrice Giuntina, 2012.

Here a complete list of ketubot and related documents published on the Manchester Digital Collection website:

Gaster Hebrew MS 1647

Gaster Hebrew MS 1648

Gaster Hebrew MS 1649

Gaster Hebrew MS 1653

Gaster Hebrew MS 1655

Gaster Hebrew MS 1657

Gaster Hebrew MS 1657a

Gaster Hebrew MS 1672

Gaster Hebrew MS 1676

Gaster Hebrew MS 1677

Gaster Hebrew MS 2009

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/10

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/2

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/3

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/4

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/5

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/6

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/7

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/8

Gaster Hebrew MS 2018/9

Gaster Hebrew MS 2019/1

Gaster Hebrew MS 2019/2

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 34

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 35

Gaster Hebrew MS Add 36

Hebrew MS 45

Hebrew MS 46

Hebrew MS 47

Hebrew MS 48

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