Opinion: What are ethical wills? And what’s Jewish about them? | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Opinion: What are ethical wills? And what’s Jewish about them? 


It hit me like a strong punch to the gut. During a keynote address, the speaker asked us if we knew the names of our grandparents. Most in attendance raised their hands. He then asked us if we knew the names and something about all eight of our great-grandparents. Less than half responded. I knew one grandparent. I never met any of my great-grandparents and knew very little about almost all of them. Will my fate be the same? Will I be remembered by some descendent 50 years from now who happens to be named after me?  

Jews have long pondered this and developed a tool that promotes intergenerational connections. The ethical will allows us to tell our story for current and future generations.  For Jews, it is not enough to only leave a traditional will. We also have a spiritual duty to guide the next generation, to help brighten their way through life.  

Where a traditional will emphasizes money, possessions, real estate, and valuables, an ethical will describes our values, life stories, and blessings. While not a legal document, it adds something meaningful to the static, dry documents that rely on tax and legal language. Ethical wills use the language of hope and immortality.   

Ethical wills have a long and rich tradition in Jewish history. They were first described 3,000 years ago in the Hebrew Bible when Jacob addressed his 12 sons on his deathbed. He told them stories, predicted their futures, and imparted his life lessons. Written ethical wills date back to the 12th century. The custom was to write directions for the religious and secular guidance of children. It is considered, after all, a good deed to instruct children before your death. 

Many identify an ethical will with a “death bed” statement given just before dying. For some, that may be true. More often, however, ethical wills are being written and shared when parents or grandparents are still in their prime. They may be written and re-written at various key transitions in the family life cycle, such as marriage, the birth of a child, retirement, serious illness or a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  

Anyone can write an ethical will to a broad target audience.  A young couple I worked with wrote one to their unborn child. Other people target the philanthropic organizations they donate money to so that recipients who are awarded their money will also know their donors’ deeply held values.    

The main ingredient for writing an ethical will is to speak from the heart. You are constrained only by the limits of your imagination; just keep it positive.  Here is an excerpt from an ethical will: 

Respect life – yours and others. I’m a believer in the Golden Rule-treat other people the way you want to be treated. I hope you find a vocation that adds value to the world. This is my interpretation of Tikkun Olam. I feel lucky to have worked in hospice. Trying to relieve suffering has been a worthwhile pursuit for me. 

By writing an ethical will, maybe 50 years from now, if asked, our descendants will know something about us – how we lived our lives, what we stood for and believed in. That’s not a bad way to leave a legacy. 

Wisconsinite Eric Weiner, PhD., facilitates family meetings to help them define a legacy that preserves both financial assets and family relationships. He is the author of “Ethical Wills: Words from the Jewish HEART.”