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Ethical Wills

Since the times of our forefathers, Jews have written ethical wills.  Here, for example, are the parting words of Jacob:

“And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.

Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father…

All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.

Then he instructed them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my ancestors in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite…

When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his kin.”

Genesis 49

In fact, according to the Midrash, Jacob specifically requested from God that he not die suddenly but rather be granted a few days of illness so that he can part from his family with some final words.

Since then, Jews have written many different forms of ethical wills: extended treatises, short words of wisdom, poems, autobiographical vignettes, words of reconciliation, and other fitting parting words.  Today, they can also be perpetuated through audio or video recording. 

What is the purpose of an ethical will?

An ethical will is an opportunity to express to your loved ones:

  1. What is most important to me and what I’ve learned through experience
  2. Some final ideas that you want to say to your family and friends

You can do this by discussing many different aspects of your life, including:

Autobiographical Information 

  • Favorite photo of yourself and why
  • Your personal story/history:
  • Transformative events in your life:
  • Historical events that you lived through that shaped the way you think and act:
  • Objects of significance that tell a piece of your life story
  • Aspects of your parents’ life that influenced you greatly

Personal Happiness and Satisfaction

  • Most impactful quote or book
  • Places of significance to you and why
  • Small things that have brought you happiness
  • Favorite or important rituals
  • Role of religion/spirituality in your life

The Role of Others:

  • Enumerating what you love about each person who is significant in your life
  • Thanking and acknowledging what each significant person in your life has brought to you
  • What I learned from my parents:
  • What my children taught me
  • What my teachers or rabbis taught me
  • Thoughts on family

Life Advice

  • Five important spiritual values or rules you live by
  • Your life advice about friendship
  • Your life advice about love/marriage
  • Your life advice about work
  • Your life advice about education/knowledge


  • Most important charitable causes and why
  • How you used money to make a difference
  • Your life advice about money


  • Regrets
  • Mistakes
  • Asking for forgiveness generally or from certain individuals
  • Granting forgiveness generally or to certain individuals

The process of creating an ethical will (whether written, audio, or visual) can be challenging but extremely rewarding.  It’s an incredible opportunity to leave a parting message to your family.  Ematai will be offering webinars on effective techniques in creating a living will and leaving a lasting message.

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