Rabbinical court imposes million-shekel divorce payment on husband, citing ketubah

Justices treat the traditional Jewish marriage document, typically viewed as symbolic, as a legally binding contract

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

A rabbinical court in Jerusalem has ordered a man to pay his wife one million shekels ($272,000) as part of their divorce settlement, Hebrew media reported, on the basis of the man’s agreement to those terms in the couple’s ketubah, a traditional marriage contract usually treated as symbolic.

The 34-year marriage came to an end after years of harassment and surveillance by the man who apparently suspected that his wife, identified by Hebrew media on Tuesday only by her first Hebrew initial “Aleph,” was cheating on him.

The suspicion, which the court found to be groundless, came despite Aleph having taken care of the man over many years while he suffered from health problems, including cancer, even donating a kidney to save her husband’s life.

The court, in response to the husband’s “unprecedented ingratitude,” ordered him to pay his wife the full sum specified in their ketubah: one million shekels, to be paid immediately.

“To most people, a ketubah demanding a million shekels could be thought of as exceptional and not binding,” said Ohad Hoffman, a lawyer specializing in family and inheritance issues, quoted by Israel’s N12 news site. But, he said, “this judgment reflects the court’s approach to more strongly protect women.

“When it is proven for sure that fault for the divorce lies with the man, it is the woman’s right to collect the sum that she is entitled to, including the amount specified in the ketubah.”

Illustrated ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

Marriage and other family matters are handled by religious, not secular courts, in Israel. Although the country recognizes marriages performed abroad and has protections along the lines of a common-law marriage, there is no civil institution for Israelis seeking to marry within the state’s borders.

The ketubah, originally intended to create a disincentive for men to divorce their wives, dates back to at least the fifth century BCE, and designates a sum of money that a man or his estate must pay his wife in the case of divorce or widowhood.

The court’s decision this week, however, should not be taken as representative of a general approach: In an October 2023 case covered by Hebrew media, a Tel Aviv court determined that a ketubah promising NIS 859,000 should be treated as merely “symbolic.”

That couple had arrived at the number by using gematria, a Hebrew numerological system that associates letters with numerical quantities, taking the value of their names and multiplying it by a thousand. The groom, judges wrote, “presumably was not savvy in gematria,” and thus they determined that the rabbi officiating the wedding had not intended the sum to be legally binding.

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