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My Revival of the Hand-Made Ketubah

In the late 1960s, I began the current revival of the Hand-Made Hebrew Marriage Contract, the Ketubah. Through hundreds of private commissions, cover stories, articles on my work in national publications, exhibits, and my piece in the Jewish Catalogue, this kicked off the renaissance of the modern Ketubah and created a mini-industry of hundreds of Ketubah artists.

Three primary works capture this renaissance:

Tradition Transition Transformation
A very large format, three volume, signed limited edition of stunningly reproduced Ketubot.

A three-volume, hand bound, Artist’s Limited Edition, large format Folio (15” x 22”) of the Ketubot by David Moss.

“Out of the hundreds of ketubot that I have created over the years, I have selected 30 which are reproduced in this edition. Each work was painstakingly transformed into a stunning reproduction on fine art paper using a special giclee process, under my direct supervision.”

The work is divided into three thematic volumes:

  1. Tradition: Ten ketubot inspired by illuminated manuscript traditions
  2. Transition, Portals of Passage: Ten ketubot in the form of gates
  3. Transformation: Innovations: Ten ketubot in non-traditional styles.

The set is housed in a linen-covered folder.

The current price for each set is $4,500, + shipping. Contact us to order.

Love Letters: Wedding Edition
A deluxe edition, signed by David Moss.

Hand bound in quarter-leather, of the ketubot matched with quotes on Jewish love and marriage, contained in a linen covered clam shell case also containing a portfolio of seven prints of the seven wedding blessings.

A perfect wedding or anniversary gift.

Price: $360 + shipping. Contact us to order

Love Letters: Trade Edition
Similar to the wedding edition but unsigned and in full cloth binding.

A large format (13.25”x 9.5” ) set, lovingly produced, and contained in an elegant cloth-covered clam shell box. It also includes a separate portfolio of seven frameable prints of the traditional wedding blessings executed on heavy, textured art paper.

Price: $200 + shipping. Contact us to order

Three collateral works extend the theme of love:

Portfolio of The Seven Wedding Blessings
A portfolio of seven magnificent frameable prints of the marriage blessings. This memorable gift for the bride and groom is a continual reminder of their wedding day.

PRICE: $85 (shipping included). CONTACT US TO ORDER.

The concluding page of Love Letters: My Tools
A signed, limited-edition, giclee print by David Moss
From Love Letters
Edition limited to 218 exemplars:
1/200 to 200/200
18 Artist proofs marked A/P
16 7/8″ x 11 3/4″
Printing: Yair Medinah, Jerusalem Fine Art Prints.
Paper: Epson 225 gram Fine Art Paper
Two-Hundred Dollars

Artist’s Statement:

A seemingly trivial problem had me stumped: how to finish the main part of Love Letters, my book on Jewish love and marriage. I had divided the works into seven sections. I knew that the next thing to follow the last section was the list of attributions. Yet I sensed that to just display the last Ketubah and finish off with the letters I had written the couples did not provide the closure I was seeking. I tried moving various parts of the text from the introduction into the back as an epilogue. Nothing seemed right.

Traditional Jewish books end with the six-letter acronym: Tav.Vav.Shin.Lamed.Bet. Ayin which stands for Tam V’nishlam, Shevach L’El Boreh Olam. A very fitting ending to any sustained work of years of creative energy. It means “Finished and Completed [with] Praise to God, the Creator of the Universe.”

Somehow every creation brings us back to a keen awareness of The Creation. Yet what is the relationship between the Creator and the created? In a sense, the story of creation culminates with the verse: “And God created Humanity in His own image, in the image of God, He created it; male and female, He created them.”—Genesis 1:27

Volumes have been written to expound the multitude of opinions on what this Biblical verse implies. In what sense were we created in the image of God? How do we resemble God? Were we created with a spark of the Divine? Were we endowed with a portion of Divine wisdom? Is the human soul somehow of a Godly essence? Is our similarity in our ability to wield immense power? Does it have to do with our gift of free will? Is it our ability to make moral and ethical decisions?

I believe that part of the divine image in us is our gift to create. Though incomparably different from divine creation, we humans can originate. We can innovate, we can invent. We can bring new forms into being. We can structure, organize and generate little worlds of our own, in a poem, a novel, a treatise, a painting, a building, a city, a culture. Like God, we can even participate in making people. The verse concludes “male and female He created them.”Are we somehow being God-like when we do all this? I believe we are. Is there a danger in doing it? I believe there is. The story of the tower of Babel makes it clear that human design and building can also run amok. Yet the immense power of human creativity for noble causes remains inspired. The creative act can engage the very best of the human/divine spirit in ways that few other modalities can.

Acknowledging and praising the Creator on the completion of a book collecting a lifetime of creative work on the re-creation of a document symbolic of the creative union of male and female felt just right.

Yet the gap between divine and human creativity remains infinite. Hebrew distinguishes this carefully. The verb that opens Genesis is Barah “In the beginning God Barah the heavens and the earth” In the traditional phrase of completion of a book praising God the same verb is used. I believe this verb is never used in the Bible for people. Human creativity is of a different kind. It has a different verb: Yatzar. This is what the potter does. She forms, she molds, she shapes, she structures. She brings earth and water, hands and tools, kiln and fire together to ‘create’ something new. Human creativity is about bringing the God-created elements of our world together to make new things. The poet combines words. The composer combines sounds. The painter combines colors.

To acknowledge, thank and elevate my physical helpers, the precious tools that have allowed me to make all these works, I placed them boldly on this page:

  • The turkey feather, cut into a quill, effortlessly writes minute letters for me.
  • The crow-quill, steel pen, flexible, delicate and responsive, precisely outlines for me.
  • The large-nibbed pen, dipped in ink or paint, patiently draws for me.
  • The razor sharp scalpel makes intricate, lacy cuts in paper or parchment while only rarely harming me.
  • The bamboo tomato stake, cut to a broad edge, graciously writes year after year for me.

(I apologize to the pencils, brushes, rulers, burnishers, inks, paints, gold-leaf, erasers and so many other friends I couldn’t include.)

For me these tools must not be thought of as mere servants, there to do my will. They are partners. It is perhaps most accurate to say that they are teachers. By listening to them very carefully, I have learned what each one most wants to do, what stroke it delights in, what flourishes it relishes. My tools have taught me much. At the business end of each tool, I included a snippet from one of the ketubot in the book of the kind of work that tool might do.

The image of the tools doing their work seemed to me the appropriate ending I was seeking. It was inserted not only as the last page of the body of the book, but as the last thing to be included. I put it in after the editors and publisher had seen final copy. When my wife, Rosalyn, saw it she immediately loved it and realized that it could stand alone as a print. She requested that a fine art print of the image be made for her. It came out perfectly and she had it beautifully framed. Requests started to come in and we decided to edition it.

I suppose this print is a grateful acknowledgement of all the innumerable gifts I have been given: the Divine gifts of soul and spirit, of hands and heart, of books and teachers, of clients and patrons, of family and friends, of tools and materials, of knowledge and understanding, of health and wealth, of time and energy, of patience and persistence, and of the knowledge that I, too, can sometimes be a useful tool.
Tam V’nishlam, Shevach L’El Boreh Olam

David Moss

Hand made, limited edition Song of Songs with Zely Smekhov
This is a further work based on Love, the hand made, limited edition Song of Songs I did as a collaboration with Zely Smekhov.

Return, return, O Shulamite, return, return, that we may gaze at you.

From Red Square, Gondar and Dayton: An Immigrants’ Song of Songs.

We are pleased to announce the third publication of the Bet Alpha Editions limited edition artist book series—Solomon’s Song of Songs.

Solomon’s Song of Songs
Including Six Etchings by Zely Smekhov
Hebrew Calligraphy by David Moss together with a new English translation by Yoni Moss laid in.
The printing of the text on the hand press and the supervision of the production by the Officina Bodoni, Verona, Italy.
Etchings pulled by Anna Zighiotto.
Handmade paper bearing the Bet Alpha Editions watermark produced at the Magnani paper mill, Peschia, Italy.
Endpapers with apple blossoms made at the Tut Niyar mill in Zichron Yaakov, Israel.
Full blind stamped leather binding and slipcases done by Ruggero Rigoldi.

The edition is limited to one hundred and thirty-seven copies of which

  • One hundred are the standard edition bearing the numbers 1/100 to 100/100.
  • Twenty are the deluxe sets containing, in addition to the book , a suite of the six etchings on vellum, each signed by the artist. These bear the Hebrew numbers from one to twenty.
  • Twelve are artist proofs with the designation AP.
  • Five are unsigned, out-of-the-edition, samples reserved for the craftspeople who produced the book and are marked HC.

David Moss writes from Jerusalem:

The Artist

Once I began working with some of the artists from the former Soviet Union, one introduced me to the other. It was through Yefim Levine that I first met the versatile artist Zely Smekhov and his charming wife Mila. Zely was born in 1932 and they immigrated to Israel in 1991. Art is a tradition in the Smekhov family. Zely’s father was Lev Smekhov, a talented artist and illustrator whose book illustrations delighted millions of readers in the twenties, thirties and forties. Zely was trained first at an art school, then in the art department at the Surikov Institute and finally at the Academy of United Painters of the U.S.S.R. He’s had eight one person shows in the FSU and four since he’s been in Israel.

One of the things that has struck me about the work of many of the Russian artists I’ve met here is the wide range of styles they are able to work in with such competence. It seems they are highly trained to be able to do almost anything they may be called upon to do. Apparently many were doing ‘official’ government sponsored art in the approved style while creating their their own work in very different style. This was certainly the case of Zely Smekhov. I only recently learned of the way Zely and Mila managed this in Moscow. Mila explained the way they survived. Zely was one of a small group of artists who would prepare the monumental 400 square meter billboards for the May Day and 7th of November Celebrations in Red Square. This started in the 80’s. Each billboard would take about six weeks to create. The painting was done on the floor of a huge warehouse with push brooms! Though Zely doesn’t consider what he did ‘real art’ the pay was great and allowed him to do his own painting the rest of the year. Zely works in oils, pastels, watercolors and tempera, but his first love is drawing. This clearly shows in the line of the etchings he’s done for our book. The origin of this book was two of his portraits of Mila—one a delicate little etching, the other a large sepia portrait that hangs in their living room. The delicate, feminine beauty immediately suggested a Song of Songs—the epitome of the deep, millenia-long Jewish conflation of worldly and divine love.

The Book

When the project began, the Russian and Ethiopian immigrations were very fresh in our minds. The verse from The Song sprang to mind:

Black am I, and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like Kedar tents, like Solomon’s drapes.

and the idea for the book was fixed. Solomon’s Song of Songs is the great Jewish book of Love. We have always read it as an intimate love story between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva said that if all the books of the Bible are holy, then this book is the holy of holies. The book exudes a sensuous love of the Land of Israel—it’s hills, rivers, trees, fruits, its cities, flowers, animals. And who can calculate what part the constant rereading of this great poem has played in our great longing to return to our land during the centuries of our separation. Is any love story more romantic than that between the Jewish people, our God and our Land? “Return, Return, O Shulamite, return, return that we may gaze on you.” And patiently, expectantly, hopefully and longingly we waited; never wavering in our love; never doubting our return.

So what could be more fitting than the sons and daughters of that return collaborating to create a new version of that magnificent love poem. Zely Smekhov the artist from Moscow creating in Jerusalem the lovely images of a daughter of Africa, an Ethiopian immigrant recently arrived. Calligraphy by a former Ohioan adds another continent to the venture. Return, Return. This is an offering of the miracle of our return.

The Text

Much has been written about the meaning of the phrase “song of songs”. Does it mean, as Rabbi Akiva seems to suggest in the above quote, the first, most eminent and lofty of Songs? Is it merely a superlative? Or perhaps it means that it is a song which is in fact a collection of other songs. Following this, many translators and interpreters have sought to divide this Megillah into poetic, or dramatic sections. I followed the divisions which Josef Carlebach used in his German translation and commentary printed in the 1920’s. This breaks the text into seventeen sections each of which he titles. We have left spaces between the sections in the Hebrew, and numbered them in the English.

I developed the calligraphic style with which I wrote out the book only after all the etchings had been completed. I wanted to create a letter form that would pick up the flowing grace of these delightful images. While including both the vocalization and the cantillations, my goal was to keep the whole look open and light, yet very readable.


The hand-made text paper is again being made by the famous Magnani mill which has been making paper in Pescia since the 14th century. They have been working with the Officina Bodoni since 1932. The paper, of course, is being made specifically for our edition.

The endpapers were made for our book by Yizhar Neuman of Zichron Yaakov. Yizhar studied hand paper production with a master in Japan, returned to Israel and set up the Tut Niyar paper mill in Zichron. He made all the paper for our Maftir Yonah book and we turned to him for our end papers this time. One of the major nature metaphors of Solomon’s Song of Songs is the apple:

Like the apple among the forest’s trees, so is my lover among the boys; his shade I covet and there I sit, and his fruit is sweet to my palate.

Brace me with raisin cakes, grace me with apples, for I am sick with love.

Under the apple tree I aroused you.

I decided it would be a lovely symbolic touch to actually embed some of the lovely Israeli apple blossoms into the book and the endpapers were the place to do it, and Yizhar was the man to make them. I contacted him and asked if he had ever made apple blossom paper. He hadn’t. He was concerned about getting them and asked if roses would do since they almost look the same and he’s worked with them before and could easily get them. (The ‘rose of sharon’ is most likely a dafodil as its translated for our edition.) I stuck to my apples.

He got back to us with good news and bad news. The good news was that there were lots of apple trees growing around Zichron; the bad news was that they were virtually all commercial trees and if the flowers were plucked, the apples would be lost. No grower would be willing to give up his crop for some artist book. I asked him to reread the Song of Songs. He did and agreed with me that apples it should be. He headed for the orchards and started talking with growers. To our great good fortune, he found that just then the apple trees were about to be thinned. In order to get big apples, they thin off all except a few blossoms from each branch. Yizhar enlisted his wife and kids and followed the thinners grabbing the delicate fresh blossoms as they fell.

Now the pressure began. The paper has to be made on the same day the pedals are removed from the tree. So the blossoms were rushed back to the mill placed into the vat of abaca pulp and the paper making began. Each day the process had to be repeated with an entirely new vat of pulp since the flowers could not kept overnight either outside of the pulp or in it. The process went along well, but the thinning ended before the paper was done. An alternate source of pedals was needed. A neighbor with some apple trees, was also unwilling to lose apples, but explained that if only the outer pedals of each flower were removed, the flower could still fruit. Again the Neuman family was recruited this time to surgically remove the outer pedals from each flower while still on the branch. The pedals were rushed to the mill and made into the paper.

Two kinds of paper were made. The single sheet abaca apple paper has the blossoms mixed into the vat as described above. In addition some sheets were made in a double fashion. This required three people working together on each sheet. One dipped clear abaca pulp and made a regular sheet of abaca paper. This was couched and a second person scattered the petals over the still wet sheet. While this was happening a third person was making an extremely fine sheet of kozo paper which was then couched over the first paper and pedals. The two wet sheets become one with the blossoms caught between. The kozo gives a diaphanous sheen to the blossoms. We will probably be using these sheets on the deluxe books.


Once again the production of this book was entrusted to the able hands of Martino and Gabriella Mardersteig of the Officina Bodoni in Verona. Martino Mardersteig’s father, Giovanni, founded the Officino Bodoni in 1923. Each of the their editions is avidly sought out by collectors of fine printing since it is considered to be perhaps the premier hand press of this century. Many of you commented on the extremely sharp, black impression of both the text and the images in our previous book, Lamentations. This exquisite printing quality can only be accomplished when each sheet of paper is carefully dampened to just the right amount of humidity, the form inked by hand with a roller, and the exactly correct pressure applied as the operator pulls the long handle of the press. Of course, over seventy five years of experience doesn’t hurt either!

The etchings were pulled by Anna Zighiotto and were done on a separate high pressure etching press.

The Binding

We have a rather special surprise for you with the binding. This is the first of our productions (except for the Haggadah facsimiles) to have a full leather binding. Both Zely Smekhov and I felt a white leather binding would add an elegance to the work, though quality leather in this color is hard to locate. After several months of searching, Mr. Mardersteig was able to find and acquire enough for the edition.

The verse

“Return, return, O Shulamite, return, return, that we may gaze at you”

which can be said to summarize the theme of this edition is blind embossed in reverse Hebrew calligraphy on the cover. It runs all the way across the book on the front and back thus continuously ‘surrounding’ the book and stressing the rhythmic turning and returning repetition in the verse itself.

The Translation.

Another first for our books—we are including a new laid-in English translation of the book. It was done by my son, Yoni Moss, an an unbiased father thinks it’s terrific. He spent a great deal of time on it, carefully checking cognate words, reviewing the scholarly literature and comparing previous translations. A quote from his short introduction lays out his goals.

My guiding principle was to avoid interpretation as much as possible, to loyally impart the sense of the original both when it is clear and euphonic and when it is abstruse and muddled. I sought to give the reader a glimpse of just those difficulties and riddles which both enhance its enigmatic quality and have given birth to the bewildering multitude of its interpretations.

Though no one knows how this song sounded to a native reader when it was first composed, I believe this translation gives a non-Hebrew reader an excellent sense of how it rings to a Hebrew speaker today.

David Moss


A Celebration of Jewish Love and Marriage in Words and Images

By David Moss

Beginning in the late 1960s, David Moss began to revive the handwritten, illuminated ketubah (pl. ketubot), the traditional Jewish marriage contract. The illuminated ketubah, a centuries-old artistic tradition, had virtually disappeared due to the development of quick and affordable printing. LOVE LETTERS presents a vast collection of the stunningly imaginative illuminated ketubot of David Moss, creator of the acclaimed Moss Haggadah. His ketubot are ‘ìilluminated’ in the medieval meaning of the term — artistically rendered to enlighten intellectually and spiritually, to clarify, and to celebrate.

Moss has extended the concept of the ketubah by also creating them for couples who wish to celebrate an anniversary by representing their marriage and Jewish values in this traditional art form.

Similar in approach to his acclaimed hagaddah, LOVE LETTERS is more than artistry applied to a traditional religious text. It is an exploration of a larger subject matter—romantic love and marriage in Jewish thought, attitudes, and tradition. These universal themes are expressed most vividly in Moss’s original and memorable images, but also in moving quotations from Jewish sources, both ancient and modern.

LOVE LETTERS is broad in scope, yet intimately personal. The creative designs for the ketubot grew out of the artist’s understanding of the couples who commissioned them. Moss approaches each ketubah as an opportunity to capture the interests, aspirations, and style of Jewish practice of the particular couple. He explains that the way he works “provides a couple with a unique opportunity to think in a different way about their relationship, their Judaism, and the kind of home they wish to create.” Each of the ketubot is matched with a poignant quotation from Jewish sources, translated for this volume by Michael Swirsky, a well-known writer and educator.

Because of its tender subject matter and its images, which are often breathtaking in concept and execution, LOVE LETTERS makes an engagement, wedding, or anniversary gift that will stir the heart. The book is part of a large format (13.25” X 9.5”) set, lovingly produced, and contained in a high-quality slipcase, which also includes seven artistic, frameable prints of the seven wedding blessings.

The ketubot are vibrantly displayed on two-page spreads. Following four ketubot, there are representations of Moss’s correspondence with the bride and groom, explaining how the design themes and enriching content in his ketubah resonate with what he has learned about them. The book begins with introductory text about the development of the ketubah and Moss’s role in reviving the tradition of illuminating them. It also includes an explanation of the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony (written by Meredith Moss Levenson), and it concludes with a valuable annotated survey (by Swirsky) of the Jewish sources of the quotations.

LOVE LETTERS is like a multilayered wedding cake, as visually delightful as it is rich and sweet.

This book provides a feast for the eyes and for the spirit. Focusing on the illuminated ketubot (marriage contracts) created by David Moss, it combines text and image in celebration of love and marriage in Jewish life. Moss’ art is exquisite. He single-handedly reintroduced ketubah illumination into modern Jewish life and drawing from the artistic traditions of the great ketubah illuminators of Italy and the Middle East, he has created ketubot of stunning beauty and majesty. The accompanying letters Moss wrote to his clients shed light on his method of working and highlight his concern that each ketubah reflect the uniqueness of each couple. The book also includes background information that helps put the ketubah in the context of Jewish betrothal and marriage. This is a book to treasure.

Nanette Stahl
Judaica Curator
Yale University Library

From his pioneering work in the late 1960s reviving the tradition of creating illuminated Ketubbot, David Moss has brilliantly forged new directions in the field of Jewish art. He has continually found new ways to bring fresh insights and meaning for contemporary times. This magnificent new volume, spanning and celebrating his thirty-five year career, is an extraordinary compilation of selected Ketubbot that represent the intellect, imagination, and innovation that are the hallmarks of David Moss’s work. It is truly a tour de force.

Grace Cohen Grossman
Senior Curator for Judaica and Americana
Skirball Cultural Center
Los Angeles

This landmark work by David Moss once again reveals an extraordinary talent, rich in imagination and craftsmanship. With well chosen gems from classical and modern literature, Moss’s art celebrates love, courtship and marriage in beautiful color and a wide range of imaginative design. It is another of David Moss’ unique contributions to the art of the book and sure to be treasured by all.

Seymour Fromer
Director Emeritus
Judah L. Magnes Memorial Museum

David Moss’ work over his thirty-five year career has made a major contribution to the revival of the tradition of the Ketubah – celebrating love and marriage through this unique medium in Jewish art. This book captures Moss’s achievement – allowing each couple’s unique story to flower within the framework of an age-old ritual practice – and always at a highest possible standard for quality of calligraphy, illustration, and production, which is his hallmark. Moss’s work is a truly admirable marriage of tradition and technique.

James S. Snyder
The Israel Museum