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Hebrew Ethical Wills

by JPS

Bibliographic information

TitleHebrew Ethical Wills
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002
SubjectJewish Religious Thought



This volume includes specimens which, either as complete texts or as extracts, are representative of the type of literature known as Ethical Wills.

The practice of writing testamentary directions for the religious and secular guidance of children cannot be traced with certainty earlier than the twelfth century. The oldest, however, is usually dated as belonging to about the year 1050. But the habit of addressing verbal counsels is, of course, very much more ancient.

Both the occasion and the motive of these testaments differ. Sometimes they were written when the father was near death, at other times when he was separated from his family by the exigencies of travel. Especially when about to go to Palestine, or when arrived there, letters of admonition might be despatched. Sometimes the parent would write his testament at a comparatively early age, and modify and expand it as years passed by. Occasionally the testament would take the form of an elaborate treatise on ritual and ethics. Here and there a father would content himself with directions for his burial; mostly such directions would be incorporated in a longer testament. Sometimes the testament would be intended for the son, sometimes for a whole family, sometimes for the public.

The testaments give an intimate insight into the personal religion of Jews in various ages. The wills convey much information as to social life, the position of women, habits of dress and domestic economy, schemes of education, and indeed as to the many interests of business and culture.

The texts reflect the phases of Jewish experience and the literary and moral reactions to it through many centuries. But whatever the passing indications of contemporary manners and thought, the Jewish code of morality remains essentially the same throughout. There is never a sordid thought or hateful sentiment, though there may be occasional narrowness of horizon. Intellectually some may be comparatively low, morally all are high. Indeed if one were writing apologetically, one could find in the confidential pronouncements which constitute the testaments a most effective vindication of the Jewish character.

About the Author 

JPS ---

The Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia), the oldest Jewish book publishing house in the United States.





  1. Selections from the Early Rabbinic Literature

  2. The Paths of Life by R. Eleazar the Great

  3. A Father's Admonition by Judah Ibn Tibbon

  4. The Virtue of Humility by Nahmanides

  5. The Gate of Instruction attributed to Maimonides

  6. Extracts from the Rule Drawn up by R. Asher

  7. Guide to Knowledge by Joseph Ibn Kaspi

  8. The Testament of Judah Asheri

  9. The Fruit of Pietism, From the Testament of Jacob Asheri

  10. The Ideals of an Average Jew (Testament of Eleazar of Mayence)

  11. A Regimen of Self-Taxation and the Testament of Solomon Son of Isaac

  12. Prothanaton of Moses Rimos

  13. XIV. XV. The Study of the Law by Abraham, Jacob and Shabthai Hurwitz

  1. The Passing of Nathaniel Trabotti

  2. XVIII. Occasional Prayers (From the Testament of Jonah Landsofer)

Counsels of a Mystic (From the Testament of Moses Hasid)

  1. In Defiance of Despondence (From the Testament of Israel Baalshem)

  2. Elijah De Veali to His Children

  3. Letter of Elijah (Gaon) of Wilna

  4. A True Man of Gimzo (From the Testament of Alexander Suesskind)

  5. Love and Peace (From the Testament of Joel Son of Abraham Shemariah)


There are two Testaments attributed to Maimonides (11351204). One of them, that most usually described as Maimonides' Testament, occurs in many libraries in manuscript, and has often been printed, since the first edition appeared in Venice in 1544. It is of polemical rather than of ethical interest, for it culminates in an ungracious, not to say abusive, denunciation of the French school of Jewish scholars. It is true that in other letters ascribed to Maimonides a similar tone is sometimes heard. Here and there, too, there are touches worthy of Maimonides, as this: The perfect rest of the Sabbath is the attuning of the heart to the comprehension of God. Then, again, there is a circumstantial statement in a Bodleian MS. (Cat. Neubauer No. 2386) to the following effect. The Testament was written in Arabic on two leaves by Maimonides; the said leaves were detached from the book containing them, soon after the philosopher's death; and the Testament was thereupon translated into Hebrew. There is no probability in the story. The most that can be urged for the document is that it may contain some authentic points (Steinschneider, Hebr. Ueber. p. 931). But on the whole it seemed best to omit the document from the present collection.

But what has been included has no better claim to authenticity. It is however a far finer work, and deserves inclusion on its own merits. It was printed by Steinschneider and Edelman in the same volumes which contain Ibn Tibbon's Testament (See p. 53). In the Bodleian MS. from which Steinschneider derived it, it is an introduction to the Testament mentioned above, and claims to be by Maimonides. In 1852 Steinschneider was rather inclined to accept this ascription, but he afterwards withdrew his opinion (Hamazkir, ii, 8, iv, 107). For it turned out that the same text had been published anonymously under the title in Cracow, in 1586. Moreover L. Dukes discovered a MS. of the text in the British Museum, entitled This MS. is written on the margin of fol. 137b, seq. of Harleian MS. 5686. In the present writer's opinion, though the MS. is a fifteenth century copy, it points to an older original. In several places the copyist must have had an old and faded MS. before him, as he frequently was unable to read his original. It seems most probable that the text is a product of the early part of the thirteenth century. It was thus written soon after Maimonides' death, and is therefore placed in the position it occupies in the chronological sequence of this volume. In order, however, to indicate that the text is later than Maimonides, it is placed after the letter by Nahmanides, which it would precede, if it were really by Maimonides himself. The writer adopts several of the most prominent Maimonist views: Free-will, the doctrine of the Mean, and so forth. That the text is not by Maimonides is indicated unmistakably by the fact that the writer addresses his children in the plural. We know of only one child, Abraham, who carried on the reputation of Maimonides into the next generation. It is clear that the writer of this text was, like Maimonides himself, a physician.

In the notes to the Hebrew text, S. indicates Steinschneider's readings, B. those of the British Museum MS. This MS. has, for the first time, been collated with the Oxford version.

I will bless the Lord, who hath given me counsel, and hath led me in the right way. I will make mention of His mercies, according to all that He hath bestowed upon me. He hath chastened me sore, but hath not given me over unto death. He held me by my right hand, and in the shadow of His hand He hid me. From the burdens of fortune's wheel He delivered me, and saved me from life's vicissitudes. In the melting pot of time He tried me, and from the blackness of youth He made me white. From its perverseness He kept me aloof, and from the conflict of passion He hath given me rest. He rebuked the serpent which enticed me, and gave me to taste the sweet. From the dust He raised me, and with princes He hath made me sit. My days have taught me, experience hath made me wise, time hath been my reproof. Thus far hath the Lord blessed and preserved me, granting unto me wisdom beyond my fellows, and enabling me to distinguish between good and evil. My end is in His hand, and He hath made me conscious of it, though I know not how long, nor how short-lived am I! Therefore hath His love stirred me to admonish the children whom He hath graciously bestowed on me, that they may observe the way of the Lord. I would teach them what He hath taught me, bequeath to them the heritage which He gave me, ere He call me away, and His Glory shall gather me in!

Hear me, my children! Blessed be ye of the Lord, who made heaven and earth, with blessing of heaven above, blessings of the deep that coucheth under, blessings of the breasts and of the womb! Be strong and show yourselves men! Fear the Lord, the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and serve Him with a perfect heart, from fear and from love. For fear restrains from sin, and love stimulates to virtue. Know that He will bring all to judgment, for what is open and for what is hidden, for good and for evil. He who leads a good life finds good even in this world; for they that see him glorify him, and those who know him declare him blessed. And when the tale of his years is full, and he departs from the children of men, he will rejoice in the worthiness of his work and will find comfort. No fear of death will distress him, for he will not be anxious concerning punishment; he will await the good reward, to see the bliss treasured up for them that fear the Lord, and his house will be established for ever. But if a man corrupt his way and pursue evil, evil shall pursue and overtake him and in turn corrupt his conduct farther. They that see him will despise and condemn him in his lifetime; and in his death his flesh grieveth for him, and his soul mourneth over him. For he departeth in darkness and with darkness is his name covered; yea, he shall lean upon his house, but it shall not stand!

I entreat you to recognize the excellency of light over darkness. Reject ye death and evil, choose ye life and good, for the free choice is given unto you! Accustom yourselves to habitual goodness, for habit and character are closely interwoven, habit becoming as it were second nature. Again, the perfection of the body is an antecedent to the perfection of the soul, for health is the key that unlocks the inner chamber. When I bid you to care for your bodily and moral welfare, my purpose is to open for you the gates of heaven! Conduct yourselves with gravity and decency; avoid association with the wanton; sit not in the streets, sport not with the young, for the fruit thereof is evil. Be found rather in the company of the great and learned, but behave modestly in their presence, occupying the lower seats. Incline your head, and open the ears of your heart to listen and to understand their words, and what they praise and blame; weigh their opinions and thus will ye be set in the right way. Guard your tongue from wearying them, measure your words with judgment, for the more your words the more your errors. Be not supercilious or conceited when with them; be not ashamed to ask explanations, but do so at the right moment and in fitting terms. Ponder well over every word before you utter it, for you cannot recall it afterwards

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