N.Y. kabbalist combs ketubot for mistakes

The middle-aged Chassidic couple from New York City was unhappily childless after 14 years of marriage. Then friends urged them to bring their ketubah, or marriage contract, to Rabbi Simcha Avrohom Halevi Ashlag.

Ashlag is a kabbalist from the Israeli town of B'nei B'rak who checks ketubot for errors.

"I thought it was bubbemeysas [old wives' tales]," said the husband, a 48-year-old school-bus driver who lives in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section and wishes to be anonymous.

His friends, also unhappily childless for many years, had twins one year after having their ketubah checked by Ashlag.

So the Brooklyn couple reluctantly went to see Ashlag, who found a major mistake that invalidated the contract, said the husband. Ashlag wrote a new ketubah and gave the woman a second Hebrew name. Since then, the couple has had two daughters.

"It's unbelievable," the husband said. "Simply unbelievable."

Ashlag maintains that errors in a ketubah can bring a host of problems, from unwanted childlessness and illness to marital strife and financial difficulties.

"In the holy books it says that every mistake in the ketubah can bring problems," said Ashlag, 49, who is Chassidic and directs the Moharil Ashlag Torah Center in Israel, which comprises several yeshivot in Jerusalem, B'nei B'rak and Ashdod.

"If a family lives in the way of Torah and does good deeds, but we see problems and tragedies, it's a good idea to check the ketubah. One letter can alter a couple's life," he said.

Over the past 12 years, Ashlag said he has reviewed thousands of ketubot brought or faxed to him by distraught couples from around the world.

If he finds errors, Ashlag keeps the old contract but writes a new ketubah on the spot with the hope that further problems will be averted. He said he has amassed almost 10,000 error-ridden ketubot.

The ketubah, he said, is the foundation of a Jewish home, where each level is represented by another generation. A prudent homeowner who discovers cracks in the wall will first check the foundation before plastering the cracks.

"Otherwise, the whole building can come down if the foundation is not strong enough," said the rabbi, whose grandfather, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi Ashlag, wrote "Perush HaSulom," a 24-volume commentary on the Zohar, Kabbalah's most important work.

"So if there are problems in a family, it's best they check the foundation, which is the ketubah."

Ketubah errors have particularly abounded during this century, he said, since printed copies of the document's standard text were permitted to replace labor-intensive handwritten ketubot.

Spaces are left on the document for the couple's Hebrew names, fathers' names, witnesses' signatures and wedding date and location, which are filled out at the wedding by the officiating rabbi.

Citing several authoritative books, Ashlag listed errors that could invalidate a ketubah: misspelled names, incorrect dates, too much space between a name and the text, crossed-out or erased words, textual errors and rewriting over a letter.

As a kabbalist, Ashlag said he might add a second Hebrew name for the husband or wife if the couple's names are not the "right combination."

The rabbi consulted 18 months ago with Avraham Albrecht, the cantor at Baltimore's Orthodox Beth Tfiloh Congregation, and Albrecht's wife, Ahuva.

A week later, Ahuva Albrecht arranged consultations between Ashlag and 60 people in her Roslyn, N.Y., community.

Albrecht's friend, a married 37-year-old Queens preschool teacher, had been childless for 10 years. Ashlag pointed out one major error and several small ones in the woman's ketubah.

"It was shocking for us to see," the woman said.

Ashlag wrote a new ketubah and six months later the woman found she was pregnant.

"I have no doubt that what he did had a direct connection," said the woman, who now has a son.

Since then, Albrecht has arranged for more than 30 people to meet with Ashlag at her home.

Although the rabbi never requests a fee, Albrecht asks that people donate $180 for each 30-minute consultation to benefit Ashlag's struggling yeshivot.

"If his help doesn't work, what have they lost?" she said. "They gave tzedakah."

But Rabbi Benzion Wosner, who heads the Shevet Levi beit din, or rabbinical court, in Monsey, N.Y., and taught the laws of scribing for 12 years, is reluctant to say that a family's misfortunes can stem from errors in the ketubah.

"It could be other things; we never know," said Wosner. But he noted that "unfortunately, too many people who write the ketubah don't know the halachot [Jewish laws]."

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, spiritual leader of Baltimore's Orthodox Shomrei Emunah Congregation, said that in general he discourages people "from relying upon mystics of various sorts who claim that by reading someone's ketubah or someone's palm, or whatever, they can diagnose what's wrong with them and prescribe what they should do."

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, spiritual leader of the Baltimore's Reform Hebrew Congregation, also takes issue with those who seek quick remedies.

"Theologically, I am not a believer that God, as we understand God, is likely to punish people for those kind of human errors committed by mistake," he said. "I do understand the power of such beliefs, but I'm concerned that it suggests magic as a pursuit instead of looking for solutions."