Ancient Jewish Marriage

Marriage in ancient times was a negotiated match involving an agreement on conditions, payment of a bridal price, and the groom's

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An Ancient Marriage Record

At the beginning of the 20th century, an actual Jewish marriage record during the period of the return from the Babylonian exile was discovered--the oldest marriage contract in Jewish history. The marriage did not take place in Palestine or among the exiles in Babylon, but among the Jews of Elephantine and Assuan, at the southern border of Egypt.

The marriage contract of Mibtachiah [the bride] and As-Hor [the groom] began with a declaration of marriage by As-Hor to Mibtachiah's father. "I came to thy house for thee to give me thy daughter, Mibtachiah, to wife; she is my wife and I am her husband from this day and forever."

Following this declaration of betrothal, all terms of the marriage contract were written in detail. As-Hor paid Machseiah, the father, five shekels, Persian standard, as a mohar for his daughter. Besides, Mibtachiah received a gift of 65 1/2 shekels from As-Hor. From this we gather that the mohar that fathers received for their daughters was then merely a nominal payment, the formality of an older custom.

According to the marriage contract, Mibtachiah had equal rights with her husband. She had her own property which she could bequeath as she pleased, and she had the right to pronounce a sentence of divorce against As-Hor, even as he had the right to pronounce it against her. All she had to do was to appear before the court of the community and declare that she had developed an aversion to As-Hor. We do not know to what degree the equality of rights enjoyed by Jewish women of Elephantine was due to Jewish or to Persian-Babylonian law.

The Ketubah, or Marriage Contract

In many points of content and form, Mibtachiah's marriage contract resembles the version of the ketubah still in vogue in modern Jewish life.

In references to marriage throughout the Bible, the mohar was paid and gifts presented, but a written contract was never mentioned. However, the Book of Deuteronomy specifically states that if a man dislikes his wife, "he writes her a bill of divorcement and gives it in her hand" (24: 3). Modern critics of the Bible have agreed that on the whole, the Deuteronomic law is a product of the century preceding the Babylonian exile. If a written document was employed at that period in dissolving a marriage, we have to assume that it was also employed in contracting a marriage.

A Divorce Penalty

The mohar institution was entirely transformed during late-biblical and post-biblical times. From a bridal price it finally became a lien to be paid by the husband in case of divorce, or by his heirs in case of his death.

The change in the mohar institution was a direct result of changes in the material conditions of life. In the simple conditions of early biblical days, all sons and daughters married young. No one stayed single.

The situation changes, however, in conditions reflected in the wisdom book of Ben-Sira, written not long before the uprising of the Maccabees. Apparently bachelorship, common among Jews in talmudic times, had its beginnings in pre-Maccabean days. Economic conditions were such that men hesitated to shoulder the responsibility of matrimony. It was not unusual for women to support the men they married.

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Hayyim Schauss taught for more than twenty-five years at the Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York and at the College of Jewish Studies and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was the author of many books and articles on the Jewish religion and its customs, ceremonies and folklore.