Ethical Wills

An ethical will is a written document that includes instructions for leading a moral life passed on from one generation to the next.  Ethical wills can include family history, stories, instructions for life, values, and other thoughts the author has that will teach the recipient a moral lesson.  Ethical Wills are gaining in popularity today as some people want to find a way to leave their loved ones with 'values' instead of just 'valuables.'





If so, the CBJ Webmaster, Apryl Stern, needs to hear from you!

I am putting together a new section for our website on Ethical Wills, to help guide those members that would like to write one but are not sure where to start.  To enhance this section, I would like to have examples of ethical wills that our members have written, as well as thoughts on why you chose to write one, and what the process was like for you. 

If you are interested in learning more or have a story to share, please contact me by email.

Thank you!

Apryl Stern


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 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, to acknowledge his hopes and prayers for us, his children. I 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 the Middle Ages. 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, grandchildren, relatives, and friends should 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" written by Rabbenu Asher in the early thirteen hundreds. "Be not prone to enter into quarrels; beware of oppressing fellow-men whether in money or word. Never feel envy 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 are writing is bound to change.

This essay first appeared in JTNews.


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).

The renewed and growing interest in ethical wills today speaks to the attraction they have to people who want to reflect on the deeper meaning of their own lives and share what they have learned with those they love. These very personal documents, with origins in the Bible, grew into a particularly Jewish custom.

Hebrew Ethical Wills can teach us much about the past and gives us food for thought for the present. First published in 1926, this expanded edition includes new material: Lawrence Fine's excellent introduction, passages from the autobiography of Gluckl of Hameln (to give expression to a Jewish women's voice), and a bibliography of state-of-the-art scholarship on the issues and themes of ethical wills.

The texts included, by Judah ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, the Baal Shem Tov, and the Gaon of Vilna, among others, with Hebrew facing pages, provide us with rich and intriguing evidence of premodern notions of parenthood and childhood. And they offer special insights into the faith and feelings of Jews across the centuries, as well as inspiration for those who want to write their own ethical wills today.

Barry K. Baines is Medical Director at Ucare, Minnesota, and Associate Medical Director of Hospice of the Twin Cities. He is also the CEO of The Legacy Center, an organization dedicated to preserving stories, values, and meaning for individuals, communities, and organizations. He has written a very useful paperback book on ethical wills — a way to pass on one's personal values, beliefs, blessings, and advice to future generations.

Baines believes that clarifying and communicating the meaning of our lives is not only important to our loved ones — it is a gift we owe ourselves. In the process of reflecting upon the past, learning about ourselves, pondering what we're willing to stand up for, facing our mortality, and writing down personal and family stories; we deepen and enrich our lives.

Baines offers several exercises to prime the pump of your memory and then includes examples of ethical wills written by people of all ages. Some are mainly expressions of love and gratitude to family members. Others spell out things the writer believes in. Quite a number are filled with advice and counsel for members of future generations. This user-friendly volume is a must-have resource for families who are on a spiritual journey.

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