“Protecting the Rights of a Wife”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, we encounter the law of the Hebrew maidservant, which we have already discussed in a previous analysis (Mishpatim 5767-2007 ). Although these laws specifically apply to the Hebrew maidservant, many of the laws governing a Jewish husband’s basic obligations to his spouse are derived from these same rules.

The Torah states in Exodus 21:8-9 that if the Hebrew maidservant is displeasing in the eyes of her master and he chooses not to marry her, she is to be redeemed. She may not be given over to another man. If, however, the master designates her for his son, then the Torah states (Exodus 21:9): “K’mish’paht ha’bah’not ya’ah’seh lah,” He must guarantee her all the rights of [other Jewish] young women. The Torah, however, declares in the very next verse, “Im ah’cher’et yee’kahch lo, sh’ay’rah, k’soo’tah, v’oh’nah’tah lo yig’rah,” if he takes an additional wife, he shall not diminish the handmaiden’s food, clothing, or marital rights.

It is from these verses that the Torah mandates that a married man must fulfill three basic Torah obligations to his wife: 1. He must supply her with food; 2. He must clothe her; 3. He must provide for her conjugal needs.

In addition to these Torah obligations, the rabbis have established seven additional rabbinic obligations.

Rabbi Abraham Chill, in his brilliant work: The Mitzvot, succinctly outlines these obligations.

1. A Jewish husband must fulfill the terms of the ketubah (marriage contract), which obligate him to pay alimony if the couple divorces, or the equivalent of life insurance, should the husband predecease his wife; 2. A husband must pay all his wife’s medical expenses; 3. A Jewish husband must ransom his wife in the event she is captured; 4. A wife who predeceases her husband, must be given a dignified burial; 5. A husband must make provisions in his estate to support his wife, should he predecease her; 6. A Jewish husband must make provisions in his estate to support his wife’s unmarried daughter even after his death, and ensure that the support continues until the daughter marries; 7. In the event that a wife predeceases her husband, the sons that she bore him shall inherit any property that she brought with her at the time of marriage. This, of course, is in addition to the share that they will receive from their father’s inheritance, along with any other sons that their father may have from previous or subsequent marriages.

While these obligations may appear de rigueur in our eyes, 2,000 years ago they were quite revolutionary. The ketubah was, in fact, the earliest document ensuring women’s rights. It is, in effect, a unilateral document in which a husband promises to love, honor, cherish and support his wife in truth. It also stipulates that, G-d forbid, in the event of death or divorce, one’s estranged wife or surviving wife be properly cared for.

It was not unusual in many ancient civilizations for husbands, for one reason or another, or even without any reason, to simply dismiss their wives. Dismissed wives were, in most cases, left to fend for themselves with no means of support. In a revolutionary declaration, the Torah, 3,300 years ago, required that a woman be properly supported, and provided with food, clothing and sexual satisfaction. Over the course of the centuries, the rabbis felt that even this was not sufficient and added additional protections for the woman.

The ketubah is a truly remarkable document, not only because it was written at a time when disdain and dismissiveness for women was common, but also because it dramatically raised the threshold of love that is expressed at the time of marriage. At the moment of one’s highest joy, at the very marriage ceremony where mutual love is openly declared, the husband, in effect, promises his wife, “I love you so much at this moment, that G-d forbid, if I die, I will make certain that you are properly cared for.” And if this declaration is not enough, the stakes are raised even higher by the groom further declaring: “I love you so much at this time, that G-d forbid, if I fall out of love with you, I will see that you are properly treated and maintained!”

While it is probably true that men and women can reach a state of true love, even spiritual love, outside of marriage, the ketubah contract raises the commitment to a much higher level. Without the real contractual commitments that are made in the ketubah, marriage lacks permanence. By agreeing to the terms of the ketubah, the husband, in effect, says to his wife, “I am fully prepared to put my money where my mouth is.” It is not enough for a husband to profess love for his betrothed and accept responsibility for her–-the bottom line is always how one acts! That is what the ketubah document ensures. Two people can live happily together, outside of marriage, and have a slew of children. Suddenly, the husband announces one day, “I am out of here, fend for yourself.” The ketubah states that, if this happens, the husband is responsible to support his former wife, the mother of his children.

Once again, we see that the Torah, and the rabbinic understanding of the sacred text, was light-years ahead of ancient society and is probably ahead of most contemporary values and practices regarding marriage even today.

May you be blessed.