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Exhibit Celebrates the Art of the Ketubah


A new exhibit in Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, The Art of the Ketubah: A Study in Jewish Diversity, celebrates the ketubah (plural ketubot), the marriage contract that Jewish law requires a groom to provide for his bride on their wedding day. The ketubah is intended to protect the woman by establishing the man’s financial obligations to her in case of divorce, as well as provisions for shelter, clothing, and food. Signed by two witnesses and read aloud during the marriage ceremony, the ketubah is an important public and cultural document. The ketubot on display in the exhibit are from the Yale University Library’s Sholem Asch Collection and span from four centuries and many countries. A virtual companion to the exhibit is available here.

Although many Jewish communities have historically decorated their ketubot, during the 17th and 18th centuries Italian Jews perfected the art of ketubah illumination. Italian ketubot from this period commonly feature rich floral ornamentation and images from the Bible as well as from Greek and Roman mythology. They often depict biblical personalities whose names were identical with those of the bride and groom, or they use images to identify their individual attributes like virtue and charity. A special feature of the ketubot of the Jews of Rome is the extended, rounded bottom edge which gave an opportunity to feature either a coat of arms, an object such as an urn, or a floral or geometric design which often include micrographic designs.

Ketubot from Jewish centers in Muslim world, including those in Iran and Afghanistan, are more conservatively decorated, reflecting the prohibition of the creation of graven images, but feature dazzling floral and animal motifs. Those of the Sephardic Diaspora (Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin) reflect the rich heritage and unique identity of these communities.

The exhibit will be complimented by a lecture by Professor Vivian B. Mann on Tuesday, April 28 at 4:00 p.m. in the Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall (128 Wall Street, New Haven). Mann is Director of the Master’s Program in Jewish Art at the Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Curator Emerita of the Jewish Museum in New York. Her talk, which is co-sponsored by the Judaic Studies Program, is titled “Jewish Marriage Contracts as Documents of Acculturation.”

The exhibit will run until June 30, 2009 and is free and open to the public Monday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-5:45 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m.; Saturday 10:00 a.m.-4:45 p.m.; Sunday 12 noon-5:45 p.m. Hours will change on May 12 and a detailed schedule can he found here.

Image: Ketubah (or marriage contract) from Isfahan (Iran), 1856, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.