Ethical will

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An Ethical will (Hebrew: "Zava'ah") is a document designed to pass ethical values from one generation to the next. Rabbis and Jewish laypeople have continued to write ethical wills during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Riemer) In recent years, the practice has been more widely used by the general public. In BusinessWeek magazine and in an American Bar Association electronic newsletter it is described as an aid to estate planning; (Murphy; Friedman) in health care and hospice (Baines; Freed) and as a spiritual healing tool. (Weil; Freed).


The ethical will is an ancient document from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The original template for its use came from Genesis 49:1-33. A dying Jacob gathered his sons to offer them his blessing and to request that they bury him not in Egypt, but instead in Canaan in the cave at Machpelah with his ancestors.

Other Biblical examples of ethical wills include Deuteronomy 32:46-47 where Moses instructs the Israelites to be a holy people and teach their children, and Matthew 5, where Jesus blesses his disciples. The early rabbis urged men to “‘transmit the tradition’s ethical teachings”’ and they communicated orally to their sons. Later they were written as letters. Eleazar ben Samuel HaLevi of Mainz, Germany, who died 1357, wrote to and instructed his sons to “Put me in the ground at the right hand of my father...." German and Spanish examples of these letters can be found today in the Fordham Library Archives (

Medieval - 18th Century[edit]

Medieval ethical wills contain the directions of fathers to their children or of aged teachers to their disciples. They were often written calmly in old age. Some of them were carefully composed, and read as formal ethical treatises. But most were written in a personal writing style, and were intended for the private use of children and relatives, or of some beloved pupil who held a special place in his teacher's regard. Because they were not designed for publication, they often revealed the writer's innermost feelings and ideals. Israel Abrahams, while editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, judged that many of these ethical wills are intellectually poor, but of a high moral level.

The earliest extant ethical will was written by Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms (about 1050). “Think not of evil,” says Eleazar, “for evil thinking leads to evil doing.... Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul.... Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.” The will of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon, the translator, (about 1190) contains at least one passage worthy of Ruskin: “Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be satisfied with delight.” The will of Nahmanides is an unaffected eulogy of humility. Asher, the son of Yechiel (fourteenth century), called his will “Ways of Life,” and it includes 132 maxims, which are often printed in the prayer-book. An example is: “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love.”

The elaborate "Letter of Advice” by Solomon Alami (beginning of the fifteenth century) is composed in beautiful rhymed prose, and is an important historical record. Alami shared the sufferings of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula in 1391, and this gives context to his counsel: “Flee without hesitation when exile is the only means of securing religious freedom; have no regard to your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”

The ethical wills of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries are similar to earlier, but they tend to be more learned and less simple.

Modern Uses[edit]

Andrew Weil, MD, promotes preparing an “‘ethical will as a gift of spiritual health”’ to leave to family in Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, and asserts that the ethical will’s “main importance is what it gives the writer in the midst of life.” The goal of writing an ethical will is to link a person to both their family and cultural history, clarify their ethical and spiritual values, and communicate a legacy to future generations; it addresses people's “‘universal needs.”’(See Maslow's Hierarchy of needs.) Writing an ethical will clarifies identity and focuses life purpose. Writing an ethical will addresses people’s needs to belong, to be known, to be remembered, to have one’s life make a difference, to bless and be blessed.

Today, ethical wills are written by both men and women of every age, ethnicity, faith tradition, economic circumstance, and educational level. See The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours by Marion Wright Edelman, Everything I Know: Basic Life Rules from a Jewish Mother, and President Barack Obama’s legacy letter to his daughters 1/18/09. Institutionally the ethical will is used today as a tool for spiritual healing in religious communities and in health care with seniors, the ailing, the aged, and the dying. (See Hargrave on the responsibility of seniors to pass on their wisdom in The Aging Family and Families and Forgiveness: Healing Wounds in the Intergenerational Family) Estate and financial professionals use the ethical will as a foundation with clients to articulate the values to inform charitable and personal financial decisions and preparation of the “last will and testament.” See Arnold on the relationship in Creating the Good Will: The Most Comprehensive Guide to Both the Financial and Emotional Sides of Passing on Your Legacy) (The ethical will is not a legal document.)

For those who find the term “ethical will” archaic, the contemporary document is referred to in the literature as a “‘spiritual-ethical will”’ or as “‘a legacy letter.’” The concept of the ancient traditional ethical will was to “‘transmit ethical instructions to future generations.”’ Moderns heirs resist being “controlled from the grave” and more readily accept the explicitly spiritual “‘blessings”’ from elders. Differentiating this writing from memoir or spiritual autobiography, though the content may be similar, is its “‘intention to transmit love and learning to future generations.”’

Content of an Ethical Will[edit]

The content may not differ from writers of spiritual autobiographies or memoirs, but the intent makes an ethical will unique. “The generic purpose of the ethical will is to pass on wisdom and love to future generations.” Writing can include family history and cultural and spiritual values; blessings and expressions of love for, pride in, hopes and dreams for children and grandchildren; life-lessons and wisdom of life experience; requests for forgiveness for regretted actions; the rationale for philanthropic and personal financial decisions; stories about the meaningful “stuff” for heirs to receive; clarification about and personalization of advance health directives; and requests for ways to be remembered after death.


  • Arnold, Elizabeth. Creating the Good Will: The Most Comprehensive Guide to Both the Financial and Emotional Sides of Passing on Your Legacy. Portfolio Trade, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59184-145-6
  • Baines, Barry K. MD. "Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper" . Da Capo Press,2nd edition, 2006. ISBN 0-7382-1055-2
  • Edelmann.–The Path of Good Men (London, 1852).
  • Edelman, Marion Wright. The Measure of our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours. HarperCollins, 1993. ISBN 978-0-06-097546-3
  • Freed, Rachael. "Your Legacy Matters," MinervaPress, 2013. ISBN 9780981745053. "Women 's Lives, Women’s Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations," MinervaPress, 2nd edition, 2012. ISBN 9780981745008. "The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman," MinervaPress, 2nd edition, 2012. ISBN 9780981745015.
  • Friedman, Scott E. and Alan G. Weinstein. "Reintroducing The Ethical Will: Expanding the Lawyer’s Toolbox", GP|Solo Law Trends & News 2(1). September 2005. [1]
  • Hargrave, Terry D.,PhD. Families and Forgiveness: Healing Wounds in the Intergenerational Family. Routledge, 1994. ISBN 978-0-87630-735-9 and The Aging Family: New Visions in Theory, Practice, and Reality. Routledge, 1997. ISBN 978-0-87630-841-7
  • I. Abrahams, Jewish Quarterly Review, III, p. 436.
  • Murphy, Kate. "The Virtues and Values of an Ethical Will", BusinessWeek. April 8, 2002. [2]
  • Obama, Barack. "A Letter to My Daughters". January 18, 2009. Published broadly online. <>
  • Riemer, Jack, and Nathaniel Stampfer, editors. So that your values live on: ethical wills and how to prepare them. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1991. ISBN 1-879045-07-9
  • Strassfeld, Sharon. Everything I Know: Basic Rules from a Jewish Mother. Scribners, 1998. ISBN 978-0-684-84725-2
  • Weil, Andrew, MD. Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-40755-3; Paperback Edition: ISBN 978-0-307-27754-1

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