For the first exercise, we suggest using the concept of the ethical will. In many Jewish societies, through the centuries, the writing of an ethical will in a person’s last years was seen as an important act. The idea is simple: just as many people today write a material will, which instructs the heirs regarding the division of property after death, so it was customary for people to write an ethical will with moral and life instruction to the heirs. In addition to the accumulation of any physical property, a person also accumulates wisdom and experience, which should also be bequeathed to the heirs.
We offer here two examples of what can be found in ethical wills. As both documents are long, we give here only short excerpts to convey their flavor. The first writer, the twelfth-century Spanish Jewish intellectual, Judah Ibn Tibbon, is an important cultural figure in Jewish history. He was the father of a line of translators who worked in Arabic and Hebrew.
My son, when I have left you, devote yourself to the study of Torah and the study of medicine. Chiefly occupy yourself with Torah , for you have a wise and understanding heart and all you need is ambition and application. Let your face shine on people: tend their sick and may your advice cure them. Take money from the rich but treat the poor without money. The Lord will repay you. In this way you will win the respect of people high and low and your good name will go forth far and wide…
My son, I command you to honour your wife as much as you can. She is intelligent and modest, a daughter of a distinguished and educated family. To act otherwise is the way of the contemptible…
Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…
Judah Ibn Tibbon
The second writer, the fourteenth-century Eleazar of Mayence, was a simple German Jew.
If they can manage it, my sons and daughters should live in communities and not isolated from other Jews, so that their sons and daughters can learn the ways of Judaism. Even if compelled to request money from others in order to pay for a teacher, they must not let the young of either sex go without instruction in the Torah. Marry your children, my sons and daughters, as soon as their age is ripe, to members of respectable families.
To the slanderer do not respond with counter-attack, and though it is proper to rebut false accusations, it is most desirable to set an example of reticence. You yourselves must avoid uttering any slander for so will you win affection. In trade be true, never grasping what belongs to another. By avoiding such wrongs - scandal, falsehood, money-grubbing - people will surely find tranquility and affection.
Be very particular to keep your houses clean and tidy. I was always scrupulous on that point, for every injurious condition and sickness and poverty are to be found in foul dwellings.
Eleazar of Mayence
The message of these two documents is clear. They are written by people who feel that they are nearing the end of their life and they wish to pass on to the next generation the distilled lessons of a lifetime. These two people, one an intellectual and the other, an ordinary man, feel that life has taught them something and that, in their old age, they can clearly express what that they have learnt throughout their life on a wide variety of matters. They have accumulated wisdom, which should be passed on for the guidance of the younger generation. The children can choose, of course, to ignore the lessons that their parents attempt to give them but their parents believe that they will pay a price for this. Perhaps they feel that only in their advanced years, released from many of the compulsions that tend to drive people throughout their lives - status, perhaps, or money or lust - they have reached the stage where their thoughts are pure and their wisdom at its greatest.