A Haifa Rabbinic Court recently ruled that a husband was required to pay his wife the "ketubah money" (the sum of money a husband stipulates in the ketubah) - in this case, one million dollars, since that was the amount he promised her under their chuppah. This is apparently not the first time, nor the last, that a Rabbinic Court has ruled that a husband is required to pay ketubah money amounting to an astronomical sum.
The ketubah (or more accurately, the" ketubah addition") is not an easy topic, and research has shown that is one of the most ambiguous, least clear concepts in Jewish law. Rabbis, lawyers and lay people can be divided into two categories- those who are convinced that the ketubah payment will never materialize and consequently the monetary amount set within it carries no real significance, and those who are positive that one can make use of the fixed monetary sum in the ketubah.
The Rabbinic Court rulings are likewise divided along similar lines. According to all opinions, an excessive ketubah amount is viewed as meaningless and invalid, for it is clear that the husband did not intend to obligate himself to such an exorbitant sum. The million dollar question, obviously, is what constitutes an "excessive amount"?
Nice, but irrelevant idea
Not only are there questions surrounding the amount fixed in the ketubah addition, but the amount set in the ketubah itself is unclear as well. Who knows what is the monetary value of "200 zuz", the sum that is traditionally promised to every virgin bride? How should we obtain that information? Even the rabbinic court judges themselves do not have a definite opinion on the amount.
Regardless, the sum does not amount to more than a few thousand shekels (between 120-960 grams of pure silver), a long way off from constituting an amount that can support a woman for a year, as it appears in Jewish sources. The notion that a man is obligated to provide for his ex-wife's welfare for a year after their divorce is a nice idea, but is an irrelevant one nowadays, in light of silver's decreased value. As such, the ketubah and its addition are unclear, erroneous, and confusing; they certainly do not give or add honor to Judaism or to the rabbis entrusted with the task of making the Torah "a Torah of life".
The principal victims of this situation are men, who discover one bright morning that they brought financial disaster upon themselves during a moment of weakness. However, women are affected as well, particularly due to the fact that they rely on this money which they will likely never receive. Most of these women assume that they will succeed in getting the "ketubah money" from their husband, if he was the one responsible for the family breakup. However, only a minority of these women succeed, and the attorneys or private investigators that they hire often give them false hope.
Hard and fast rules
In 2007, Rabbi Daichovsky, sitting as a rabbinic court judge at the High Rabbinic Court, accepted the appeal of a husband who had been required to pay a ketubah sum of NIS 1 million, stating that the ketubah was invalid since it was an "excessive ketubah". In his decision, he explained that the ketubah addition was introduced in order to compensate for the disparity that had been created between the value of '200 zuz' during the rabbinic times, and its current monetary value. In his opinion, every sum fixed in the ketubah that exceeds NIS 120,000 is excessive and should not be taken into consideration.
The rabbinic court decision establishes a number of hard and fast rules on this issue. In his ruling, Rabbi Daichovsky criticizes the custom that has taken hold in a number of Jewish communities of stipulating excessive sums in the ketubah, which is often done as a way of showing off. He explained that nowadays, when women receive half of the marital assets, there is no reason for a woman to receive such a high ketubah. He also notes that the husband certainly did not intend to obligate himself to such a high ketubah in addition to his wife receiving half of their joint property.
Moreover, Rabbi Daichovsky pointed out that in most cases, the woman was not even involved in the decision to set the ketubah sum, and she often hears the amount for the first time under the chuppah.
The ruling is both sharp and clear, and reflects the approach of preserving the original rabbinic conception of the ketubah (providing for the woman financially for a year) in addition to preserving the ketubah's relevance in today's society (limiting the monetary amount) where a husband and wife are legally bound to split their joint property. However, it is also known that one rabbinic court ruling is not binding upon other rabbinical courts. Therefore, Rabbi Daichovsky's words will not solve this the problem.
What's a realistic sum?
So where are the rabbis that marry these couples? We can imagine who the foolish groom is who writes a NIS 1 million sum in the ketubah - but who is the wise rabbi who allows such a thing to occur? Doesn’t the person in charge of the wedding ceremony have a responsibility not to allow a groom, in a moment of arrogance or social pressure, to fix a sum that he can never realistically pay, if and when that day should come? Where is the Chief Rabbinate that should be issuing a decree in this matter?
Indeed, I have been told that Tzohar rabbis provide a general guideline that the ketubah amount should be reasonable and realistic, and that the maximum allowed by some of these rabbis is NIS 180,000. On the other hand, the Ramat Gan Rabbinate sets the limit at NIS 999,000. This seems to come from a belief that any number below one million is a realistic sum that the husband intends to pay(!).
There are those who believe that the ketubah addition should be limited to a strictly symbolic amount. Those who argue for this approach (largely in the United States), seemingly rely on the civil system to protect women’s' financial needs. On the other hand, Tzohar rabbis, who limit the ketubah amount, have stated that the ketubah money should not be relinquished and that the amount should be no lower than NIS 50,000. Regardless, the time has come to put this issue on the table and discuss it in depth.
Rivkah Lubitch is a rabbinical advocate, working at The Center for Women’s Justice
Translated by Yael Biton