Answer: Ethical wills have a long history in Jewish tradition. The Bible and Talmud are replete with example of ethical wills. The fist recorded ethical will in the Bible appears in Genesis (chapter 49). On his deathbed, our forefather Jacob addressed each of his sons, bestowing a blessing on each. However, his blessings were not merely good wishes, but also contained the mission and destiny of each individual son, based upon each son’s specific talents and skills. In fact, our Sages teach that Jacob was the first person in history to get sick before he died. Until that time, a person would remain in good health right up until the time he died. Jacob prayed to G-d that people should become sick before they died so that a person would have an opportunity to offer his children an ethical will.
In a similar vein, we find in Deuteronomy (chapters 33-34), Moses offers blessings to each tribe before his death. Again, Moses tailored each tribe’s blessing to each individual tribe, offering instructions so that each tribe could fulfill its own destiny.
To cite another example in the Bible, the Book of Kings I (chapter 2) records David’s last words to his son Solomon, his successor. Immediately before his death, David provides Solomon with the instructions needed for a successful reign.
The Talmud as well contains many references to ethical wills; we will suffice with one such example. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin (68a) records the conversation between Rabbi Eliezer, one of the greatest scholars of the Talmud, and his students immediately before the demise of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer bemoans the fact that his students did not take advantage of the opportunities they had to learn from him and warns them of the future which may befall them. The students are shaken by his chastisement but accept it to heart. Certainly, Rabbi Eliezer’s intention is to provide constructive criticism to his students so they may grow from his teachings even after his death.
These are but a few of the many examples of ethical wills contained in the Bible and the Talmud. A reading of the medieval Jewish literature makes it clear that it was very common practice to leave a ethical will well after Talmudic times. The ethical will has served as the final act of a parent to guide his offspring in the ways of G-d.
Rabbi Yoel Spotts