Writing and Reading Ethical Wills

On the Jewish custom of leaving a written spiritual legacy for one's children.

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The author provides a historical view of the meaning of ethical wills, with some implicit advice for those who would write--and read--them. Excerpted with permission from the introduction to Ethical Wills: A Modern Treasury edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer (Schocken Books).

There is a lovely Jewish custom, one that is unfortunately not sufficiently known in our time, of writing what is called an ethical will. Parents would write a letter to their children in which they would try to sum up all that they had learned in life, and in which they would try to express what they wanted most for and from their children. They would leave these letters behind because they believed that the wisdom they had acquired was just as much a part of the legacy they wanted to leave their children as were all the material possessions.

ethical willsThe first ethical wills are found in the Bible. Jacob gathers his children around his bedside and tries to tell them the way in which they should live after he is gone. And Moses makes a farewell address, chastising, prophe­sying, and instructing his people before he dies. David prepares Solomon before he goes to his eternal rest by warning him whom to be wary of when he becomes king, and by asking him to complete the task he had begun and was unable to complete. The Apocrypha, the Talmud, medi­eval and modern Hebrew literature all contain examples of ethical wills parents left their children.

Many years ago Israel Abrahams published a splendid collection of these medieval wills entitled Hebrew Ethical Wills. We hope [our] book, which brings together some modern and contemporary wills, will be a fitting continuation of the Abrahams work.

An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one's failures, and consider what are the things that really count. Thus an individual learns a great deal about himself or herself when writing an ethical will. If you had time to write just one letter, to whom would it be addressed? What would it say? What would you leave out? Would you chastise and rebuke? Would you thank, forgive, or seek to instruct?

An ethical will is not an easy thing to read. There is a sense of being a voyeur, of eavesdropping on an intimate conversation, of reading a love letter from the beyond. Those who read these documents should do so with reverence and with gratitude. We tread carefully here, and we read with a sense of privilege.

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Rabbi Jack Riemer

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co-editor of So That Your Values Live On and the chair of the National Rabbinic Network, a support system for rabbis across all the denominational lines. He is a former consultant to President Bill Clinton.