Ketubah, Venice, 1707
This ketubah (wedding contract) is from the marriage of Solomon and Branca de Almeida that took place in Venice in 1707.
The ketubah is written on parchment in Aramaic. It is beautifully illustrated and includes Hebrew verses from the Bible. The artist is unknown. On the top of the ketubah is an oval medallion that depicts the city of Jerusalem. The picture includes building with domes and towers surrounded by a wall. The style of architecture shows how the artist, who probably hadn’t visited there, imagined Jerusalem. The green shading throughout the city can also be interpreted as depictions of Jerusalem’s hills. The clusters of houses and establishments were perhaps his portrayal of the various communities in Jerusalem at the time.
Above this is a ribbon bearing the words: “אעלה את ירושלים על ראש שמחתי” “I will keep Jerusalem in my memory at my happiest hour.” This is a verse traditionally said by the bridegroom at his wedding before breaking the glass in commemoration of Jerusalem. The meaning is that even at such a time of great joy, like a wedding, one must remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temples. The origin of this verse is from Tehilim (Psalms) 137:6. The psalm describes the yearning of the Jews for Jerusalem following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and their exile to Babylon. The first lines describe the sadness of the Jews in exile. They then state their pledge never to forget Jerusalem and the consequences should they forget: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”
The ketubah includes other illustrations such as birds, fountains, and grapevines, and the emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel, possibly to symbolise ideas of prosperity. There are also illustrations of the forces of nature – earth, water, fire, wind, the seasons, and the senses – possibly symbolising the need for strong foundations in marriage.
Ketubot have been decorated since fourteenth-century Spain, from where the custom spread across Europe. Not only were the decorations believed to embellish the ketubah, but the rabbis saw it as a way to avoid tampering with the text after it had been signed. The art of decorating ketubot became so popular that the rabbis set out laws to restrict how much could be spent on it.
As was traditional in certain communities, this specific ketubah also included the Tnaim – the terms of the engagement which are written to the left of the main text.
The purpose of the ketubah is to outline the rights and responsibilities of the groom towards the bride. Reading the ketubah aloud is an integral part of a traditional Jewish wedding. The text has changed very little since ketubot were first used thousands of years ago. The marriage documents found in Aramaic papyruses from the days of Artaxerxes, the King of Persia from the fifth century BCE, are remarkably similar to modern-day ketubot. Local customs did, however, develop in the ketubot of various communities. In ketubot from North Africa and Yemen, husbands were prevented from making their wives move from city to city. In ketubot from Syria and the Land of Israel, it was written that before going on long journeys, a husband had to leave his wife with a conditional divorce in order to protect her from being left as an agunah (a chained wife).
This ketuba is from Venice which has a rich Jewish history from as early as the tenth century. Jews began to settle in Venice from the thirteenth century, with the influx of Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. From 1516 the Jews of Venice were required to live in a ghetto, where despite restrictions the Jews still managed to flourish. The seventeenth century saw the Jews excel in commerce and scholarship. Venice became the centre of Kabbalah in the eighteenth century however many Jews left the city due to anti-Semitism and rough conditions in the ghetto. In 1797, under Napoleonic rule, Jewish segregation was ended, and the Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto. the twentieth century, the Jews of Venice also suffered during the time of the Second World War and many of them were murdered in the Nazi Death Camps. A plaque honouring Venice’s holocaust victims can be seen in the Jewish ghetto.
This ketubah can be used in Jewish Studies lessons as a trigger when teaching about the Jewish life cycle or, more specifically, Jewish marriage. It can also be shown when learning about the different traditions that reflect the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem throughout history.
This ketubah can also be used as a point of comparison when looking at marriage or contracts in other cultures in Cultural Studies.
Jewish History teachers can use the ketuba in classes about Jewish life in Italy and other parts of Europe during the Middle Ages.
Art teachers can also show this to discuss Jewish art and compare ketubot from this period with contemporary ketubot.
What is this document?
When and where was it written?
Who are the people mentioned in the document?
What is the main text that appears in the document?
What languages are used in the document?
What quotations appear in the document?
Look at the pictures around the text.
Which characters are depicted?
What city is depicted in the top centre?
How do you recognise it?
Reading Between the Lines
What is a ketubah and when is it used?
Why do you think Jerusalem is represented here on a ketubah?
Take a closer look at the picture of Jerusalem. What does this depiction show about how the artist imagined the city?
How has the city changed since 1707?
What other images do you see on the ketubah? Why do you think they were included on the ketubah? What could they represent in a Jewish marriage?
Have you ever seen a ketubah?
If so, describe it.
Are there any similarities between this ketubah and the one that you have seen?
Design a modern day ketubah.
Plan what images you will draw on the ketubah and then draw the ketubah using these images. Explain why you chose these images.