My fiancée and I were looking at ketubot (marriage contracts) for our upcoming wedding. I don’t read Aramaic, but I understand that the traditional Jewish ketubah is all about the husband’s obligations to his wife, but there’s nothing in there about the wife’s obligations. Why is Jewish marriage so one-sided?


First of all, mazel tov on your engagement! May the wedding create an eternal bond and bring only blessings, peace and harmony to the world.

Concerning the ketubah: Let me explain what a ketubah is all about and why it was created—and then you’ll understand the reason for its one-sidedness. Along the way, I just can’t help providing a few tips that might help in your upcoming marriage.

As any anthropologist can tell you—and any sensible marriage counselor, and your grandmother too—men and women do not go into marriage on an equal footing. You don’t need a degree in biology to tell you why a man’s commitment to marriage doesn’t weigh up to a woman’s. Just think of the ad of the discomfited young man tenderly holding his hands over his that-doesn’t-look-like-a-beer-belly swollen lower abdomen—with the caption, “If it were you, you would be more careful.”

A woman has to be more careful. Where a man puts down one chip, she’s putting down twenty. He has everything to gain; she has everything to lose. So, naturally, a woman enters marriage seeking security and stability so she can build a home and a family—not to be left out in the cold with that swollen belly. A man enters a marriage like a conqueror taking territory. Once married, it doesn’t take long before he is already looking for new territory to conquer—at work, out in the world, and perhaps other places as well . . .

So, what ties the man down to provide that security to a woman? How about love, passion, and all the madness our Creator built into us to join man and woman? Isn’t love all we need?

Five hundred years ago, the master Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote1 words about human passion that still sound light-years ahead of us. A man’s passion for a woman, he wrote, is not truly part of his manliness. It is the piece of woman left behind in man when they were divided apart in the Garden of Eden. That is why, if he will use that passion to gratify himself, it will turn against him and destroy him. That is when we call it the yetzer hara—the evil impulse.

But, he continues, nothing G‑d created is evil except through man’s devices. Even the yetzer hara, when directed towards its true purpose, will elevate a person and his world. And what is the true purpose of these passions? To drive a man to beautify the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and make for it a home in this world. In other words, if because of this passion he will build his wife a home, provide her affection and buy her fine jewelry—and if he does all this with the intent that she represents the Shechinah, for she is the mother of life—then he sublimates his passions to become G‑dlike.

“Therefore,” he wrote, “all pleasures a man receives in this world should be only for the sake of his wife.”

That’s how things are supposed to be: Love drives man and woman together. Marriage provides the security the woman needs. And the love continues driving each one to provide what the other needs.

But all this is when passions are harnessed and directed. When a woman surrenders to the man’s passions unconditionally, she gains nothing in return for everything. She’s not doing him any favor, either—he’s burning a lot of rubber on the highway of life, but going nowhere.

Yes, we are told over and over that man and woman are two halves of a whole that is complete only when they are joined together in the mystic, holy union of marriage. But that’s not a Duncan Hines recipe. It’s something that happens when they both work hard to get past their own little selves and discover the “other” in this relationship. Left to their base instincts, the sages teach, a man and a woman are two opposing fires that will burn one another to charcoal.

Think of the line in Genesis that describes the first woman as “a partner against him.” Literally, that means she’s an equal partner. But the awkward phrasing prompted our sages to provide a deeper reading: “If he merits, she is a partner. If not, she is against him to make war.” There you have it: For marriage to be about making love, not war, human beings need to rise above nature. As for the natural, instinctual state of humanity in the world—there love, war, and a whole other slew of pathologies all swim together in a single, very smelly swamp.

How is it that something as beautiful as love can destroy? The chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explained2 that this is because the love of a man to a woman and the love of a woman to a man are two opposites. A man’s love, he said, flows like water, while the love of a woman burns like fire.

His son, Rabbi Dov Ber, explained:3 A man’s passions build up like water behind a dam, desperate to break through, and finally bursting into a great flood. But once the flood is over, the passion dissipates—until the reservoir behind the dam can fill again.

The passions of a woman follow an opposite pattern. They are like a fire that must be lit with kindling wood, tended and fanned until hot enough to catch the logs, and only then does it burn on its own. Once that fire has broken out of its bounds, it burns and burns, and can never be satisfied—until there is nothing left to burn.

Two opposites, totally out of sync with one another. The only solution, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is to for the two to find a deeper bond, something beyond both of them. Each one leaves his or her own tiny self, and feels what it is like to be the other. Then a woman understands why this man who so passionately needed her yesterday seems now to be in another world where she barely exists. The balloon has burst and needs time to refill.

And a man understands that a woman’s passions cannot be flicked on like an electric light bulb, but are more like a campfire that needs careful attention to begin, even more care once its flames soar upward, and even more caution not to abandon the glowing coals.

While you’re looking for that deeper bond, let’s get back to the ketubah. The ketubah is one step the sages took to deal with this imbalance and introduce some parity into the relationship.

Like we said, the woman wants security—for good reasons. Here’s another I didn’t mention yet: A study by the National Fatherhood Initiative4 found a strong and direct negative correlation between a close relationship with Dad and adolescent violence. Another study5 found that closeness with Dad is a major factor in reducing the adolescent’s risk of drug abuse—while mother closeness could not be found to have any correlating impact. Not surprisingly, closeness to Dad was highest in “intact families.”

So, even if you’re self-sufficient, if you want healthy and well-adjusted kids, you’re best off with a dedicated father around.

Although a lot of men get a kick out of being provider, protector and dad, they’re not necessarily programmed to lock into that role for life. At some point, the male conquistador urge might just say, “Time to get out of this hamster wheel and get on with life.”

In kicks the ketubah, a wedding contract that basically says, “Here are your obligations to your wife while you’re married, and here’s the penalty you’ll have to pay if you want to get out of it.” What are those obligations? That you will provide food, clothing, affection and a home, and fulfill all the expectations of a husband that are standard in whatever society you happen to live. What’s the penalty for divorce? That which most men will miss most: lots of money.

Look, it’s far from fail-safe. It still requires lots of work, compromise and sacrifice from each member of this partnership. So, call it one piece of the puzzle. For our purposes here, however, the point is . . .

That’s why the ketubah is unbalanced: because it’s there to protect women, not men.

In brief, the sages saw that women get the short end of the stick, and stepped in to do something about it. To my knowledge, things haven’t changed.6

You might want to read some of our material about marriage. Our wedding mini-site is a good starting point.

Click here for more about the ketubah.