Writing Ethical Wills

by Elana Zaiman

A version of the following article first appeared in JTNews.

Most of us write a last will and testament to be assured of a home for our possessions. An increasing number of us write a living will to outline our wishes for end-of-life medical care.

Yet how many of us write an ethical will? How many of us write a letter to those we leave behind passing on our ethical values and ideals? Isn't bestowing a spiritual legacy just as important?

Ask anyone who has received such a letter, "What is the most meaningful possession you were left by someone close to you?" That person will often say, "The letter I found addressed to me in my father's safe deposit box," or "The letter my grandmother handed me a few years before she died."

Ask me.

I was a teenager when my father handed me a copy of his ethical will. As I read his words, I cried. I was in awe of his ability to admit his weaknesses, to state his beliefs and values, and to acknowledge his hopes and prayers for us, his children. I find that I sometimes still cry when I read his ethical will. And I read it often. I read it when I'm annoyed with him, when I feel far away from him in distance or in spirit. And always, I feel his love.

The Jewish tradition of writing ethical wills began in medieval times. Today people of all faiths write ethical wills to articulate and to convey their values and ideals to the people they love.

Many people say to me, "I want to write an ethical will, but I don't know how," or "I don't know what to say," or "I'm not a writer."

Writing an ethical will is not about being a writer. Writing an ethical will is about being yourself, taking time to look deep into your soul, and into the souls of those you love. Writing an ethical will is about saying what matters to you most in words that reflect your pattern of speech. Your children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and godchildren will be able to hear your voice echo in their hearts as they read your words.

Ethical wills reflect the time and place in which they were written. Ancient ethical wills were often proscriptive as in the following excerpt from "The Rule" by Rabbenu Asher in the early 1300's. "Be not prone to enter into quarrels; beware of oppressing fellow-men whether in money or word. Never feel any or hate. . . Habituate yourself to wake at dawn, and to leave your couch at the song of the birds. Rise not as a sluggard, but with eagerness to serve your Maker!"

The tone of contemporary ethical wills is often more psychological and relaxed as in the following excerpt from an ethical will by Rosie Rosenzweig written to her family in 1979. "Rachel, my youngest, who has my name and my old place in the family, the youngest, I want to leave you only my best qualities and not my worst. Listen to the still, small voice of the best in yourself, regardless of what the people around you feel. Be swayed only by wisdom, and not the momentary emotions of others."

Know that you can write an ethical will at any time. And know that you have a choice. You can either give your ethical will to your loved one while you are alive, or you can leave it in your safe deposit box to be found after you die. Either way, your relationship with the person to whom you're writing is bound to change.


The Power of Letters, Historical Inspiration, This Book and it's Intent

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