For centuries, Jewish parents have passed down wisdom and values to their children by crafting end-of-life documents called tzava’ot or “ethical wills.” Much as a legal will enables one to dole out assets and possessions to one’s heirs, an ethical will gives the writer an opportunity to share their wealth of wisdom: lessons they’ve learned over a lifetime, where they found meaning in their lives, and what they may want for their loved ones going forward.
Traditionally, Jewish ethical wills contained a number of items, including burial instructions, debts and obligations to be paid, requests that family members carry on specific religious traditions, and blessings over the family. But modern ethical wills are less about accounting and instruction and more about imparting wisdom or wishes or simply reviewing one’s life. They are often written in the form of a letter and addressed to one’s children, but they can take many forms. There is no halachic (Jewish law) template or script they must follow.
Ethical Will Origins
In biblical times, ethical wills were often instructional and became a record of a person’s final wishes. Near death, the patriarch Jacob blessed his children and told them where he wanted to be buried. Rabbi Charles Rudansky, pastoral director for MJHS Health System in New York City explains that Jacob was setting a model of preparation for a Jewish death. “His example was to get your house in order and begin to convey to the next generations your wishes, your legacy, your hopes, your blessings, and in some cases, your rebuke,” Rudansky explains. “Jacob’s messages to his children are the starting points in terms of what Jewish tradition feels should be discussed at the end of life.”
The Talmud contains references to verbal ethical wills or deathbed instructions left by sages and scholars. As Rabbi Eliezer, a notable scholar of the Talmud, lay dying, he criticized his students for not taking advantage of the opportunities they had to learn from him. His aim was to move his students to learn from his teachings even after his death. (Sanhedrin: 68)
In the Middle Ages, ethical wills were shared privately among families. One of the most famous ethical wills from this time was written by Spanish Jewish physician and scholar Judah ibn Tibbon to his son, Samuel when he died in France in the 12th century. It ran over 50 pages long and covered a wide range of topics, from the importance of books — he wrote the familiar line “let books be your companions; let bookcases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens” — to a harsh rebuke of his son whom he felt wasn’t living up to his expectations.
Ethical Wills During the Holocaust and Beyond
Zippora Birman, a member of the Jewish Underground in the Bialystok ghetto in Poland, left an ethical will to future generations of Jews before she died in 1943. Birman’s notes, discovered after the war, included a call to action for “Vengeance, vengeance— with no mercy, with no sentimentality.”
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Israel holds a number of ethical wills hastily written by Jews before they were killed at the hands of the Nazis. Like Birman’s will, many also call for vengeance. Others thank the writer’s parents, ask for a proper Jewish burial and express an unending love for God.
After the Holocaust, ethical wills became a tool to help future generations understand how Jews who survived held onto their faith despite the suffering they endured and to impart the message of why they felt supporting Israel, a Jewish state, was so important. Today, some secular Jews use this medium to convey to their children why they believe it’s important to stay connected to a Jewish community even if Judaism is not at the center of their lives. For examples of ethical wills written by contemporary American Jews, see Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer’s Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.
The Universality of Ethical Wills
In his book Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, author Barry Baines notes that Christian texts also contain illustrations of verbal ethical wills. He points to John 15-17, a recounting of Jesus’s parting advice and blessings to his followers. Baines concedes that the term “ethical will” is of uncertain origin but offers his interpretation of the name: “as writing became more common, attachments to legal wills were discovered that contained the title of “Teachings of the Fathers.” While legal wills provided instructions on what to do with material assets, the “ethical” sections contained instructions on how to lead a moral and upright life. I like the analogy: legal wills bequeath valuables, while ethical will bequeath values.”
A number of secular groups also encourage people to write ethical wills. One such group is Celebrations of Life , which strives, through its website and podcast, to give all people the tools to create an ethical will. There are also professional writers who can explain the process, share sample ethical wills, and help clients write their own ethical will.
Ethical will writing is a key part of end-of-life or hospice care, with many hospice nurses or social workers encouraging their patients to write one. An ethical will is usually intended for the benefit of family members after a parent or grandparent has died, but the process of ruminating on one’s own legacy and what one values most can be an emotional and healing experience for a person coming to terms with their own mortality. Proponents of ethical wills say it can end up being just as meaningful for the author to write an ethical will as it is for their intended audience to read it. Doctors and other palliative care professionals often “prescribe” or suggest their terminal patients engage with ethical-will writing as a comforting component of their end-of-life care.
Receiving and Reading an Ethical Will
Writing an ethical will can be challenging, and similarly, reading an ethical will is not always an easy thing to do in the aftermath of a loved one’s death. In Ethical Wills: A Modern Jewish Treasury, Riemer and Stampfer describe the feeling of receiving an ethical will as “sort of like reading a love letter from the beyond. There is a sense of being a voyeur, of eavesdropping on an intimate conversation.” They recommend recognizing the privilege of being given an ethical will, holding it in perspective and treating it with reverence and gratitude, even if the will presents the reader with a burden or sense of guilt.
How Can I Create an Ethical Will?
Ethical wills are not legal documents so they can take any shape the writer wishes. In most cases, they are written or typed, but they can also be shared widely through video platforms and social media. An ethical will may contain photographs or illustrations or take the form of a collage. It can read like a letter or a laundry list of ideas. It can be addressed to one’s children and grandchildren, to a friend, or anyone and everyone else you think should read it.
There is no template for an ethical will; however, a number of rabbis, synagogues and JCCs offer courses in ethical will writing. Hospice workers and colleges can also be a resource. Find some exercises to help you get started here.
If a person near death is unable or uninterested in writing an ethical will on their own, hospice workers can step in and help their patients with verbal ethical wills. These are nonjudgmental, non-threatening conversations social workers or chaplains have with dying patients that are either recorded with audio or video, or simply transcribed after talking to the patient about their life. This is often an easier way for a person who is uncomfortable talking about certain subjects or memories to leave a legacy for their families.
Much like sitting shiva or watching over the dead before burial, writing an ethical will is one of a number of rituals where Jews can find meaning and spirituality while engaging with their own mortality. Consider the links below to get started writing your own.
Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them – Rabbi Jack Riemer and Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer
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Pronounced: huh-LAKH-ic, Origin: Hebrew, according to Jewish law, complying with Jewish law.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.