Medieval ethical wills contain the express directions of fathers to their children or of aged teachers to their disciples. They were for the most part written calmly in old age, but not immediately before the writers’ death. Some of them were very carefully composed, and amount to formal ethical treatises. But in the main they employ unaffected writing style. Many were intended for the absolutely private use of children and relatives, or of some beloved pupil who held the dearest place in his master’s regard. They were not designed for publication, and thus, as the writer had no reason to expect that his words would pass beyond a limited circle, the ethical will is in many cases a clear revelation of the writer's innermost feelings and ideals. Israel Abrahams, while editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, judged that many of these ethical wills are intellectually poor, but that morally, the general level is very high.
Addresses of parents to their children occur in the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Rabbinical literature. But the earliest extant ethical will written as an independent document is that of Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms (about 1050), who must not be confused with the author of the Rokeach. The eleventh and twelfth centuries supply few examples of the ethical will, but from the thirteenth century onwards there is a plentiful array of them. “Think not of evil,” says Eleazar of Worms, “for evil thinking leads to evil doing.... Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul.... Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.” The will of the translator Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon (about 1190) contains at least one passage worthy of Ruskin: “Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be satisfied with delight.” The will of Nahmanides is an unaffected eulogy of humility. Asher, the son of Yechiel (fourteenth century), called his will “Ways of Life,” and it includes 132 maxims, which are often printed in the prayer-book. “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love. Sleep not over-much, but rise with the birds. Be not over-hasty to reply to offensive remarks; raise not thy hand against another, even if he curse thy father or mother in thy presence.”
Some of these wills, like that of the son of the last mentioned, are written in rhymed prose; some are controversial. Joseph Ibn Caspi writes in 1322: “How can I know God, and that he is one, unless I know what knowing means, and what constitutes unity? Why should these things be left to non-Jewish philosophers? Why should Aristotle retain sole possession of the treasures that he stole from Solomon?” The belief that Aristotle had visited Jerusalem with Alexander the Great, and there obtained possession of Solomon’s wisdom, was one of the most curious myths of the Middle Ages. The will of Eleazar the Levite of Mainz (1357) is a simple document, without literary merit, but containing a clear exposition of duty. “Judge every man charitably, and use your best efforts to find a kindly explanation of conduct, however suspicious.... Give in charity an exact tithe of your property. Never turn a poor man away empty-handed. Talk no more than is necessary, and thus avoid slander. Be not as dumb cattle that utter no word of gratitude, but thank God for his bounties at the time at which they occur, and in your prayers let the memory of these personal favors warm your hearts, and prompt you to special fervor during the utterance of the communal thanks for communal well-being. When words of thanks occur in the liturgy, pause and silently reflect on the goodness of God to you that day.”
In striking contrast to the simplicity of the foregoing is the elaborate "Letter of Advice” by Solomon Alami (beginning of the fifteenth century). It is composed in beautiful rhymed prose, and is an important historical record. For the author shared the sufferings of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula in 1391, and this gives pathetic point to his counsel: “Flee without hesitation when exile is the only means of securing religious freedom; have no regard to your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”
The ethical wills of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries are closely similar to the foregoing, but they tend to become more learned and less simple.
Much of the content of this article is only slightly adapted from Israel Abrahams, Chapters on Jewish Literature (1899), in the public domain. That work cites the following sources:
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