An ethical will — also known as a “legacy letter” — is a document that bequeaths not material goods, but ideas and values. For Jewish people, ethical wills are a recognized part of how their faith is passed on from one generation to the next. Documentation from the Middle Ages shows us that, around that time, rabbis were leaving such documents to their children, outlining things to be done or not done.
Ethical wills can be considered a 3,500 year old tradition. In the Old Testament, Jacob gathers his twelve sons around him while on his deathbed, and gives them an oral ethical will in which he articulates moral guidance and burial instructions. (He asked to be buried not in Egypt but in Canaan, with his ancestors.) He also offers them final blessings. In modern times, this practice has been widely adopted by those who wish to leave a helpful document to their loved ones that has both a moral and practical dimension.
Although there are no particular guidelines for what an an ethical will might contain, some historical examples include protocols and insight into holiday observances, life or faith practices that were particularly meaningful for that individual, and commentary or guidance based on current events that the person felt were important for future generations to take into account. Ethical wills sometimes become a part of a family’s archive. Over time, the content of ethical wills have formed the foundational customs of Jewish culture, such as consoling the bereaved, visiting the ill, honesty, keeping the Sabbath, and service toward the relief of suffering in the world (tzedekah).
It is not necessary to attain a certain age before writing an ethical will. It is a mindfulness practice that can be undertaken by anyone at any time. Writing has proven to be a useful tool for better understanding one’s own values and perspectives, as well as evaluating one’s life within a broader collective scope. This allows a person to calibrate their thoughts, words, and actions toward a vision of humanity that transcends the ultimate temporality of the human condition.