The Art of the Ketubah

Abby Feinknopf

Careful consideration goes into every wedding, but for a Jewish ceremony, many couples focus on the art of the ketubah.

Since the second century, the ketubah (pictured on the right) has served as a wedding contract, documenting the historical and financial details of a Jewish wedding. In ancient times, a bride's parents sought compensation for the loss of a contributing household member. A bride's ketubah was a legally binding document, or lien to be paid by the husband, should the marriage fail due to death or divorce.

Originally written in Aramaic on parchment, the ketubah (plural: ketubot) has seen several evolutions over the years. In the '60s, ketubot were black-and-white photocopies that were simply filed away; today they are highly decorative, deeply symbolic and purposely framed art.

Columbus-based artist Pamela Feldman-Hill became inspired by ketubot in the late '70s. While visiting her sister in Israel, Feldman-Hill attended an exhibition of ancient ketubot at the Israel Museum. She realized she could combine her bachelor's degree in fine art with her knowledge of Hebrew and calligraphy to monetize her artwork at a time when national interest in decorative wedding ketubot had begun to rise. Feldman-Hill first offered to create a ketubah for a close friend, then launched her career further through commissions.

Initially, Feldman-Hill painstakingly hand-painted and -lettered each ketubah individually. Today's technology allows for the mass creation of digitally designed, laser-cut documents in a fraction of the time.

“It is now a global market,” says Feldman-Hill, who partners with artists and galleries around the world. “The reality of our world's technology has changed not only how ketubot are being made, but also marketed.” Artists who prefer to focus on one aspect of a ketubah now form global collaborations, allowing them to share in the process and profit. They can digitally control the artwork, text, sales and inventory of their creations, turning ketubot into customizable, economical, print-on-demand products.

Once a ketubah's text is approved by a rabbi, there are no rules governing the design. Ketubot can range in size, style and price, from $75 to thousands of dollars. They can be written in many languages, with or without English translations, and designed with any artistic motif.

Tanya Schlam and Jordan Ellenberg, who were married by a conservative rabbi, commissioned Feldman-Hill to create their ketubah in purple and blue to match a quilt. The ketubah noted Schlam's late father's name and the couple's aspirations of “peace in their home and confidence and serenity in their hearts” and the hope that “God bless them with children.” Also included was their shared joke of keeping each other well-fed to avoid getting “hangry.”

For Feldman-Hill, the artwork and text carry equal importance. Long after the wedding day is over, the ketubah represents a Jewish couple's commitment to one another. Her intricate work—which has been exhibited at the National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., and reproduced by Hallmark for its Tree of Life line of cards—continues to mark Jewish weddings, as well as anniversaries, internationally.