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The Ketubah (pl. ketubot) is the standard marriage contract that Jewish law requires a groom to provide for his bride on their wedding day. It is intended to protect the woman, primarily by establishing the man's financial obligations to her in case of divorce. Although many Jewish communities throughout the centuries have decorated their ketubot, Italian Jews during the 17th and 18th centuries stood out for cultivating the art of ketubah illumination. Italian ketubot commonly featured rich floral ornamentation and images from the Bible as well as from Greek and Roman mythology. They often depicted biblical personalities whose names were identical with those of the bride and groom, or they used images to identitfy their individual attributes (virtue, charity, etc.). The symbol of the spread out hands of the high priest denoted that the groom was of the priestly family (Kohen).

It is our pleasure to present for this exhibit a selection of ketubot from the Sholem Asch Collection. They range from 17th through 19th century Italy and are fine examples of the high artistic achievement in document illumination reached by Italian Jewry in that period. A special feature of the ketubot of the Jews of Rome is the extended, rounded bottom edge which offered an opportunity to feature either a coat of arms, an object such as an urn, or a floral or geometric design which often included micrographic designs (the creation of images with minute Hebrew letters).




Micrography is a minute script woven either into geometric or abstract forms or into shapes of objects, animals, or human beings. It is a common feature of Jewish manuscript illumination and over the centuries it has become an artform in its own right. An excellent example is the microgram of the Song of Songs on view in this exhibit in which Hebrew characters are transformed into inherent components of the artistic composition. The ketubot on display also employ micrography in order to enhance the sanctity of the document by serving as a means of including biblical texts while at the same time contributing to the ketubah's overall design and beauty.

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On vellum. Rome, 1817

Bridegroom: Hananiah ben Reuben Mansi
Bride: Grazia bat Jacob Hayyim Azkariel

Micrography surrounding the text includes biblical passages and prayers relating to marriage. The ornamented cartouches above and below the text include both scenes and playful ditties relating to love and courtship.






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On vellum. Ferrara, 1736

Bridegroom: Eliezer Aaron ben David Abraham ha-Kohen
Bride: Guidita bat David ben Moses ha-Kohen

The sign of the outspread hands on the top and the bottom indicate that both the bride and the groom are of priestly families. The name of each of their families thus ends with Kohen. The two figures on top represent wisdom (right) and courage (left). The four cartouches along the inner border depict the four seasons. The writing along the border is from the Book of Ruth. The two large figures on either side of the document represent plenty (right) and justice (left). The pomagranates on the bottom and in the cartouche, depicting summer, symbolize fertility.




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On vellum. Livorno, 1806

Bridegroom: Raphael Joseph ben David Hayyim Franco
Bride: Hannah bat Jacob Pereira de Leon

This ketubah is quite different in appearance from the others in this exhibit. The bride and groom are descendents of Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who settled in Italy, rather than of native Italian Jewish families as are the other couples mentioned in the ketubot on display. The Sephardic community had a somewhat different rite and a different tradition of document ornamentation. This ketubah is much less ornate and detailed and the calligraphy is in cursive rather than the large block letters of the traditional Italian Ketubot.

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Rome, 1797

Bridegroom: Nathan ben Solomon Rignani
Bride: Stella bat Menahem Modigliani

The geometric ornamental borders on this ketubah differ from the more traditional floral designs found on most Italian ketubot of this period. The Hebrew writing along the border is from the Book of Ruth followed by a series of blessings evoking the patriarchs and matriarchs, and Mordecai and Esther (surprisingly, since the two were not husband and wife). The micrography on the lower rounded edge is of the seven blessings recited at the Jewish wedding ceremony.

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On vellum. Rome, 1793

Bridegroom: Abraham Hayyim ben Ephraim Modigliani
Bride: Rosa bat Menahem Modigliani

Micrography surrounding the text consists of the entire Book of Ruth. The coat of arms above the text is apparently that of the Modigliani family (ancestors of the famous painter?).

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On vellum. Nice, 1690

Bridegroom: Jacob ben Samson Vallabrega
Bride: Rosa bat Joseph Kohen

The scene above the text depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, echoing one of the seven blessings recited at the Jewish wedding ceremony. The border surrounding the text includes miniature biblical scenes, many of which relate to marriage.

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On vellum. Rome, 1820

Bridegroom: Moses ben Reuben Mansi
Bride: Esther bat Mordecai Samuel Modigliani

The two illustrations on the top allude to the names of the bride and groom: Moses and Esther. The ornamental border interweaves flowers and micrography. The rounded lower edge is a typical feature of the ketubot of the Jews of Rome. The micrography outlining the urn at the bottom of the border consists of the seven blessings recited during the marriage ceremony. The micrography woven into the ornamental border is made up of verses from the Book of Psalms and other passages relating to marriage.

Also available online:

See also The Jewish National and University Library's worldwide registry of ketubot.

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