Jerusalem rabbis: Limit grooms’ alimony vow to 1 million shekels

Rabbincal court’s quest to cap prenuptial pledges comes as another group tries to make it easier for women to get divorces

An illustrative photo of a bride and groom taking portraits prior to their wedding, in Tel Aviv, November 4, 2015. (Flash90)
An illustrative photo of a bride and groom taking portraits prior to their wedding, in Tel Aviv, November 4, 2015. (Flash90)

The Jerusalem Rabbinical Court asked the country’s Chief Rabbinate to set a limit of 1 million shekels on the prenuptial agreement that obligates Jewish grooms to compensate their wives in case of a divorce.

The unusual request earlier this month comes in the wake of a divorce in which a woman demanded that her ex-husband pay her NIS 555,555 (roughly $145,000) because that was the sum he pledged to pay on his ketuba — the marriage contract required by Orthodox Jewish law, the Hebrew-language NRG news website reported Monday.

Her ex-husband argued he made the pledge as a testament of his love and appreciation for her, not thinking it would be legally binding. But in Israel, where rabbinical and other religious tribunals act as family courts within the framework of the judiciary, ketubas are admissible as an official contract.

Many grooms pledge astronomical sums they could not possibly afford, attaching numerous zeros after the number 18, which is numerologically equivalent to the Hebrew word for life, or the 555,555 figure, which is also seen as auspicious among Sephardic Jews. The custom of reading out the ketuba to the wedding guests during the ceremony adds incentive to name high figures, which the rabbinical court defined as unrealistic.

A man stands outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A man stands outside the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The panel of three rabbinical judges, known as dayanaim, that reviewed that specific divorce case was divided, with one judge ruling in favor of the ex-wife’s demand, while his colleagues determined the ex-husband should not have to pay the full sum. The rabbinical court, or beit din, finally awarded the woman the equivalent of NIS 120,000 ($31,600) from her ex-husband.

In the Jerusalem beit din’s request to the rabbinate to set a NIS 1 million cap on ketuba pledges, the judges demonstrated that unrealistic pledges date back centuries. They quoted a senior dayan in Morocco, Rabbi Shaul Even Danan, who denounced the custom 200 years ago.

“The unwanted addition to custom of the inflated ketubas, which has spread through our lands reaching the millions, has become a laughable matter. Paupers without so much as a slice of bread to their name cannot be trusted to pay even a fraction of what they commit to paying — an action which is tantamount to lying outright,” he wrote.

Separately, the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization announced on Friday an intensified campaign to encourage marrying couples to sign a prenuptial agreement that is compliant with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law, and designed to prevent situations where husbands refuse to divorce their wives. The document is in addition to the ketuba.

Israelis celebrate Tu b'Av at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)
Israelis celebrate Tu B’Av at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

The campaign, which was announced ahead of Tu B’Av, a holiday known as the “Jewish Day of Love,” which this year will fall on Friday, comes amid an escalation in punishments given out by rabbinical courts to intransigent husbands who abuse the fact that, under Jewish law, a man must consent to divorcing his wife in order for the contract to be nullified.

Women who are refused a religious divorce, known as a get in Hebrew, are referred to as agunot, meaning “chained” or “anchored” in Hebrew meaning.

Agunot are not eligible to remarry under Jewish law, and any children they have with other men are in turn also ineligible to marry.

The Tzohar prenuptial agreement empowers the rabbinical judges who recognize it to nullify a marriage based on the man’s signed statement in advance that he consents to give his wife a get if requested to do so. Some 1,000 couples in Israel have signed the Tzohar contract.

In recent months, Israeli rabbinical courts have published the names of intransigent husbands to publicly shame them and slapped long prison terms on them, including a record five-year term earlier this month. In another precedent, the country’s highest rabbinical court recently sentenced a man to 30 days in prison for encouraging his son not to divorce the son’s disabled wife.

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