Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day and support a great cause!
Click here to learn more!

Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

The portion or property which a wife brings to her husband in marriage. In patriarchal times the dowry was not known. As among all other nations of antiquity, in Israel the bridegroom named a price or ransom ("mohar") to the father of the bride (Genesis 24:12; Exodus 22:17; compare Hosea 3:2). It is, however, doubtful whether this mohar was given in the form of a ransom to the father or of a gift to the bride. Both cases are mentioned in the Bible; e.g., Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, brought costly gifts to Rebekah when he betrothed her for his master's son; while Jacob served Laban for fourteen years for his two daughters (see see MARRIAGE; compare Saalschütz, "Das Mosaische Recht," , § 3).

Gifts to Daughters.

Besides this custom of the bridegroom making gifts to the bride or paying a ransom to her father the Bible also makes frequent mention of property which the woman brought to her husband at marriage. Rebekah brought to her new home female slaves from her father's household (Genesis 24:59,61). Laban made similar gifts to Leah and to Rachel (Genesis 29:24,29). Othniel at marriage received from his father-in-law, Caleb, a field of springs (Judges 1:15). Solomon received from Pharaoh, his father-in-law, a city as the portion ("shilluḥim") of the princess (1 Kings 9:16). Later, the practise of giving a dowry to a daughter, as it is now understood, entirely superseded the gift or ransom given by the groom; so that in Talmudic times it ("nedunya") is spoken of as a long-established custom.

The Rabbis ordained that a man must give some of his property to his daughter when about to be married. The minimum amount was fifty zuzim (Ket. 67a); but every parent was obliged to give in proportion to his means. The minimum amount was paid to a poor girl out of the charity funds of the community, even when they were not in a flourishing condition. Although the court could compel a father to give his daughter in marriage, it could not compel him to pay a set dowry as long as he secured a husband for his daughter without it, or by paying a smaller sum (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 71, 1, Isserles' gloss). If the groom agreed not to ask for the dowry, he was obliged—even while the bride was still in her father's house, in the period between betrothal and marriage—to provide her with all necessary garments (Ket. 67a). The dowry might be withheld by the bride's father if the groom maltreated his bride during the period of berothal. In such a case the money was deposited with a trustee until peace was established in the family (Shulḥan 'Aruk Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 73, 8, Isserles' gloss, and "Sifte Kohen," ad loc.).

Paid from Estate.

If, after the father's death, the heirs gave their minor sister in marriage and paid her a dowry amounting to the minimum sum fixed by the Rabbis, she might, on attaining her majority, collect from the estate the balance due to her. The court usually estimated how much the father would have given to his daughter if he had been living, according to his position in society, or his generosity, or his action with regard to previous marriages of his daughters; and this sum was taken out of the estate (Ket. 68a). If there was nothing to guide the court in its estimate, the Rabbis ordained that a tenth of the estate be given to each daughter at her marriage, to be paid by the heirs in money or in valuables. If a number of daughters were about to be married at the same time, a sum made up of a tenth of the estate for the oldest, a tenth of the remainder for the second, and so on, was divided equally among them (Maimonides, "Yad," Ishut, 20:4; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 113, 4).

If the father was unable to pay the sum he had promised as a dowry to his daughter, the groom could not on that account postpone the marriage, but had either to marry or to divorce his bride. But if the promise was made by the bride herself and she was unable to fulfil it, the groom might let her "sit until her hair became gray"; that is, until she could pay the sum which she had promised (Ket. 109a). Insistence upon the payment of a dowry, however, was much decried by later authorities (Eben ha'Ezer, 2, 1).

There is also frequent mention of the custom of the groom's father contributing to the dowry (Ket. 102b); and at present the custom prevails, in all cases where a dowry is agreed upon, that the groom's father subscribes a proportional sum to the dowry, usually much less than that given by the bride's father. If the bridegroom died after betrothal, and, according to the Mosaic law, the bride became betrothed to his brother (Levirate), her father need not pay to the latter the dowry promised to his brother (Ket. 66a).

In Marriage Contract.

The dowry that the woman brought to her husband, whether real estate, slaves, or movable property, was recorded in the marriage contract (see KETUBAH). Custom decided whether the sum mentioned in the marriage contract should be exactly the same as the dowry was really worth, or more or less. In some places the custom prevailed of recording an amount one-third or one-fifth more than the value of the actual dowry; in others, less than the value of the dowry (ib.; Ishut, 23:11; Eben ha-'Ezer, 66, 11). This sum then became a claim upon the husband's property equally with the ketubah itself; so that when he died or divorced her, the woman could collect from his estate both the sum stipulated in the marriage contract and the value of her dowry. During the husband's life, however, the dowry belonged to him, and hemight derive all benefits from it. He might even sell it for the period of his lifetime. The laws governing the relation of the husband to the dowry vary with the manner in which the woman has acquired that property.

Kinds of Property.

"Nikse ẓon barzel" (the property of iron sheep) is the name applied to the dowry given to the woman at marriage by her father or his heirs, and detailed in the marriage contract. All rents, fruits, and increments of this property belonged to the husband; and he became responsible for the principal in case of loss or damage. At his death, or in the case of divorce, the woman received the value of that property as estimated on her wedding-day. Like iron, it could not be destroyed or damaged, and like sheep, the husband might derive all profit (wool) from it.

"Nikse melug" (the property of plucking) is the term designating property which the woman obtained during her betrothal, by inheritance or by gift. The husband was entitled to all the fruits and profits thereof, although he was not held responsible for its loss or deterioration. He might "pluck" it (have the usufruct during his life), and need not answer for any damage that might occur to it.

The husband was made the usufructuary of the foregoing two classes of his wife's property by a decree of the Rabbis, in consideration of his being obliged to redeem his wife whenever she might be taken captive (Ket. 47b). The wife should not sell any part of her property while her husband was living, and if she did sell, he could collect from the buyer all the improvements or profits that the property bore during his life. If the husband became involved in a lawsuit regarding his wife's property, he needed a power of attorney from her to act in her name. When, however, the case also involved the profits of the property, he did not require a power of attorney; for, being entitled to the profit, he might also claim the property itself (Giṭ. 48b; "Yad," Sheluḥin, 3:4; Eben ha-'Ezer, 81, 4).

Property which the husband gave to his wife after marriage, or which a third person gave to her with the express understanding that it be used exclusively by her, or which she obtained by selling her marriage contract, was considered entirely beyond the husband's control. She could not, however, sell or give away the property given to her by her husband; while with the other kinds she might do as she desired (Eben ha-'Ezer, 85, 7).

According to the rabbinic law, the husband became the sole heir of his wife's property of all these three classes (INHERITANCE). In regard to the dowry that the woman brought from her father's household, this law was modified by a decree of R. Jacob Tam (1100-1171 C.E.), who enacted that if the wife died childless within the first year after marriage, the whole amount of the dowry should be returned to her father or to his heirs. Subsequently this was still further modified by a decree of the rabbinical synod of the communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mayence ("Taḳḳanat ShWM"), to the effect that if she died childless during the second year after marriage, one-half of the dowry should be returned to her father or to his heirs. This became the custom throughout Germany, and later was adopted by the Polish Jews also. In 1761, at a conference of rabbis held in Slutsk, Russia, this enactment was again modified to the disadvantage of the husband. As found in the records (§ 24) of the Grodno Jewish community, it reads as follows:

"Concerning the enactment of Speyer, Worms, and Mayence ('ShWM') in the case when the daughter died, we have established the following decree in accordance with the requirements of the time and of the place. If the wife dies within three years after marriage, everything should be returned to her relatives, even her garments. If she dies within five years of marriage, half of her dowry should be returned to her relatives. After that period the husband becomes the sole heir."

Only the first half of this decree has been accepted by all later authorities of Russia and Poland (Eben ha'Ezer, 53, 4; Eisenstadt, "Pitḥe Teshubah," ad loc.).

  • Hastings, Dict. Bible;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T.;
  • Bloch, Das Erbrecht, Budapest, 1890;
  • idem, Der Vertrag, ib. 1893;
  • Mayer, Die Rechte der Israeliten. Athener, und Römer, , § 225. Leipsic, 1866;
  • Saalschütz, Das Mosaische Recht, , Berlin, 1853;
  • Mielziner, The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce, Cincinnati, 1884;
  • Lichtschein, Die Ehe, Leipsic, 1879.
L. G.
J. H. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Dowry'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/dowry.html. 1901.
Ads FreeProfile