Paper cut Ketubah

The historical role of the Ketubah


Historically, the ketubbah was a document that specified the obligations of the groom, and, even more importantly, served as a safeguard for the wife, by listing provisional recompense in the case that she be abandoned, divorced or widowed.

The first reference to a legal deed associated with the Jewish marriage ceremony is found in the apocryphal book of Tobit 7:14 from the third or fourth century BCE, “And he called Edna his wife, and took paper and wrote an instrument of covenants and sealed it”.

the tradition of illuminating Ketubahs

The first illuminated ketubbahs date from as early as the tenth to twelfth century and originated from Israel and Egypt. However, the earliest example of a paper cut ketubah dates from 19th century Italy.

The designs used to adorn the ketubahs are as wide and varied as the regions from which they originated: Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and throughout the Ottoman Empire. The motifs, in turn, are influenced by the cultures of their origins. One prevalent motif is the endless knot, symbolizing the eternal love of the bride and groom. Others refer to biblical themes, such as “the gates of Jerusalem,” the “menorah,” and a variety of flora and fauna mentioned in the scriptures. There are also nods to the ancient classical cultures: zodiac signs, urns and ornaments and arches and other architectural features.

The careful attention and elaborate ornamentation given to this legal document, attest to the significance Judaism places on the marriage covenant --central to the life cycle sequence. It is a manifestation of the concept of hiddur mitzvot, beautifying and enhancing the ritual and deeds.

The Paper cut Ketubah

While the decorative ketubah has had a longstanding place in Judaica, the paper cut ketubah is historically more rare and special.

In the past two decades the paper cut, as a form of Judaica, has seen a renaissance. This is partially credited to the laser process, which has enabled artists to develop more intricate and sophisticated designs that are accessible to to a wider public. Today, paper cut ketubbot have found a place in many Jewish homes as cherished family heirlooms. 

The History and Traditions Behind Ketubot

The History and Traditions Behind Ketubot

A historical Ketubah from Venice

A historical Ketubah from Venice

Traditionally, a ketubah, (literally meaning "the written one") is a Jewish wedding contract which specifies the groom's obligations to provide his wife with food, clothing, shelter and physical needs. Although originally there were no standard texts, Aramaic (dating from the Talmudic era) was the standard language in which they were written.

Prior to the wedding ceremony, the ketubah is signed by the groom in the presence of two witnesses, read aloud under the chupah, before all of the celebrants, and then given into the custody of the bride.

The art of ketubah illumination came as a later development in the history of ketubah making. It was a more prevalent practice among the Sephardic Jewish communities than the Ashkenaz. Beautifully decorated ketubahs from diverse eras and regions are found in major museums and private collections worldwide.

A revival of ketubah art has occurred of late.  In addition to the traditional rich variety of styles and techniques, a newcomer, paper cutting has now entered the scene.  Although paper cuts are richly grounded in Jewish art, it was not a technique generally used to embellish ketubahs

Modern ketubah by Danny Azoulay

Modern ketubah by Danny Azoulay


My Parents' Ketubah

Family Heritage

Finding My Parents'  Ketubah

As we were clearing out my parents’ apartment following my mother’s first Yahrtzeit, my parents’ ketubah was discovered amongst some old documents.  None of my seven brothers and sisters had ever seen it before. In fact, it was not immediately apparent to us that this was indeed their ketubah. 

The folded yellowed document, almost 90 years old, was written in half culmus : bearing a similarity to Hebrew and “Rashi” (the typeface used in the Rashi commentary). The half culmus font had been used by the Sepahardic Jews particularly in Spain during the Tor Hazahav (the Golden Era of Spanish Jewry).  Later, after fleeing to North Africa, the Jews living in Morocco continued to write various religious documents in this font.

The wedding contract—handwritten--elaborated on the families of both my mother and father, with special attention to my mother’s father ( “ a man of great knowledge of the Torah and acts of chesed--good deeds”) as he had been a highly-respected member of the local Jewish community.

Although the ketubah is unadorned, two passport-sized pictures of my parents were attached according to official requirements. This was very surprising for us, and at the same time also delightful. My parents were 19 and 16 at the time of their marriage. I had never seen photos of them looking so young.

Another unusual detail on the wedding contract caught my eye. There was a kind of abstract line drawing on the ketubah that we could not figure out the rhyme or reason for it being there. Only later were we able to get the answer to this curious squiggle. When we brought the ketubah to the local rabbi, we were told that this was the signature of the rabbi who officiated at the ceremony and that his signature, itself, was a chain of signatures incorporating all signatures of his predecessors -- including the current rabbi’s own addition.  Today a fine- print made of the original ketubah is framed and hanging in each of our family’s homes. 

Added to the joy of being an artist and having my work be part of the wedding ceremony for many young Jewish couples around the world, my own experience of finding my parent's ketubah, gave me a new perspective of the ketubah’s significance--for not only the couple on the wedding day, but for their offspring and the generation to follow


My parents, Perla and Elijah Azoulay