The Bible contains examples of wills given by the great sages, especially that of Jacob (Gen. 49), but they possess no special religious or ethical theme. This holds true for the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, one of the major works in the
and Pseudepigrapha written during the Second Temple period and shortly after its destruction. The prototype of the medieval ethical will may be found in the Book of Proverbs, where much of the practical ethical advice is given in the manner of instructions from a father to his son.
Talmudic literature contains many aggadic passages quoting or purporting to quote deathbed instructions by great sages to their pupils. These passages, collected by I. Abrahams in the first chapter of his anthology Hebrew Ethical Wills (2 vols., 1926), do not concentrate on ethical themes, though some contain ideas similar to those that appear later in the medieval literature. However, Hebrew ethical wills of the Middle Ages are not a direct development of these sayings.
In the Hebrew poetry of the classical Andalusian period there are some examples of ethical wills, for instance, a poem of Samuel ha-Nagid dedicated to his son Yehosef (Yehosef Kol Asher) before one of his battles with Granada's army. Seeing death very close, Samuel collected in the poem the best advice for his son.
Medieval ethical wills are an integral part of medieval Hebrew
, which, although it undoubtedly has deep roots in the traditional talmudic and midrashic literature, is mainly a product of medieval ideologies – i.e., Jewish philosophy, Ashkenazi Ḥasidism (see
), and Kabbalah. The aim of ethical literature was to apply theological, psychological, and anthropological conclusions of the ideologies to the everyday life, social and religious, of the average Jew. Various types of literary works were developed for this purpose: ethical treatises dealing with several moral problems, according to subjects or alphabetical order; monographs and homiletical works that deduced ethical norms from the ancient texts; and the ethical will that began to develop in European Jewish communities during the Middle Ages.
Ethical wills differ from other kinds of ethical literature in several ways. Whereas ethical literature usually gives a lengthy theoretical basis for behavioral requirements, ethical wills ordinarily only point out the right way, disregarding the ideological foundations. Thus they are a more practical, behavioral type of literature, close in some respects to the literature of the hanhagot (see
) whose sole aim is to instruct the reader in right behavior in the manner of halakhic literature (but dealing with some subjects not covered by halakhah). The literary form of the will – as teachings given by a dying father to his sons gathered around his bedside – does not leave much space for elaborations on or explanations of the traditional basis for the commandments. Ethical wills, therefore, comprise short ethical treatises, very practical in character.
In many ethical wills, every paragraph opens with the words "my son." Sometimes legends arose describing in detail the circumstances under which the will was given. Some wills are described as letters sent by a father, who was far away (in Palestine, for instance), to his sons, instructing them in the basic moral and ethical teachings. In later generations this became an accepted literary form for any short work dealing with the basic ethical norms. The titles of such works, especially in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, suggest a will, e.g., Naḥalat Avot ("Inheritance of the Fathers"). It is doubtful whether any extant work of this sort was actually a will, the term "will" having been used only to imply that here in a short form is the essence of the ethical teachings of a certain writer.
Their literary form made ethical wills popular and respected, with readers looking upon them as the last will and testament of a great scholar that should be accepted and followed. Naturally, some writers created pseudepigraphic works, attributing them to great sages of their time who did not happen to write such a treatise themselves. Medieval and early modern times offer examples of such pseudepigraphical works, from the "will" attributed to Maimonides to that attributed to
*Israel b. Eliezer
Ba'al Shem Tov. The Ẓavva'at ha-Rivash (1793) was attributed to the Ba'al Shem Tov, although the work was mainly a compilation of sayings primarily from the writings of Dov Baer of Mezhirech.
The literary form of the will also influenced writers of major ethical works. Jehiel b. Jekuthiel of Rome, author of the Ma'alot ha-Middot, a major ethical book of the 13th century, used the form of the will, with the words "my son" beginning many parts of the work. Even
Isaiah b. Jacob ha-Levi *Horowitz
, whose family produced several ethical wills (see below), used this form in his monumental ethical work Shenei Luḥot ha-Berit.
Probably the earliest extant ethical will in Hebrew, a translation from the Arabic, comprises a short chapter in the
, a collection of ethical epigrams attributed to
Solomon ibn *Gabirol
and translated into Hebrew by
Judah ibn *Tibbon
. The chapter entitled "The Gate of the Commandment of the Scholar to his Son" includes various epigrams on almost all aspects of human behavior and is part of the philosophical ethical literature, although the philosophical presuppositions are almost nonexistent within the chapter itself.
Another early example is the treatise
("Ways of Life"), first attributed to the talmudic sage
*Eliezer b. Hyrcanus
, and later to the 11th-century
Ashkenazi scholar *Eliezer
(ha-Gadol) b. Isaac of Worms. Modern scholars disagree about the date of this work – Zunz considers that it was written early in the Middle Ages, about the eighth century, whereas G. Scholem holds that it forms part of the literature which emanated from the same circle that produced the Zohar in the 13th century. Orḥot Ḥayyim, a popular work, is a fine example of the literary genre – it includes, in short paragraphs addressed to the writer's sons, advice and instruction about practical, behavioral problems in ethical, moral, religious, and social life, without any specific ideological basis (which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to determine its time and place of composition).
Judah ibn *Tibbon
's ethical will, written about 1190 and addressed to his son Samuel, who translated Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew, is one of the classics in this genre. Although the will contains the usual detailed and practical instructions from a father to his son on moral behavior, it also is characterized by features rarely found in ethical wills. For example, the will is introduced and concluded by a poem, and within the body of the will there are a number of poetical passages, some of which were taken from
's Ben Mishlei. A second unusual feature is Judah's reference to many details of family life, his designation of bridegrooms for his daughters and a bride for his son. Apparently the testament is an actual private ethical will from one person to another, and not just a literary work. Thirdly, in this work, also known as "A Father's Admonition" (Musar Av), the author clearly reproves his son for his laziness, his lack of interest in books in general and in Arabic in particular, and many other faults of character which seem incongruous in the man who translated the Guide of the Perplexed. Perhaps parts of the will were written when Samuel was quite young, and other parts were added later. In addition, the author dwells at length upon the right way to maintain and preserve a library, for Judah possessed one of the most important libraries of his time.
From the 13th century, ethical wills became not only a popular Hebrew literary genre, but also customary practice within certain families. Apparently the custom was maintained in the family of
*Asher b. Jehiel
(father of the author of the Turim), which moved from Germany to Spain. Extant are the "Rules" which R. Asher gave to his family, and a will addressed to the sons of R. Jacob, the son of R. Asher. It is probable that R. Judah, Jacob's brother, also wrote such a will which had come down as an anonymous work.
This custom seems to have been prevalent in one of the most important families in Eastern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Horowitz family, whose place of residence was usually Prague. In the 16th century
wrote the important ethical will which became widely known as an independent ethical work, Yesh Noḥalin. His son, Jacob, wrote a will in the form of emendations of and additions to his father's ethical book, and the two works were often printed together. The grandson,
Shabbetai Sheftel *Horowitz
, the author of Shefa Tal, carried on the family tradition. Although many of this family were kabbalists who helped to spread Lurianic Kabbalah in Eastern Europe, kabbalistic ideas do not occupy a major place in their ethical wills.
Ethical wills sometimes reflect major controversies and trends within Judaism. The 13th-century will of Joseph ibn Kaspi of Provence, known also as Sefer ha-Musar ("The Book of Ethics") or Yoreh De'ah ("Teacher of Knowledge"), reflects the fierce controversy between the practitioners of Jewish philosophy, especially the followers of Maimonides, of which Ibn Kaspi was one, and their opponents. Ibn Kaspi tries to reconcile the idea of philosophical knowledge as the supreme religious value with the traditional expressions of devotion. Another glimpse into major problems in the history of Jewish thought is provided by the will of
*Elijah b. Solomon
Zalman of *Vilna
(the Vilna Gaon), who addressed a will to his sons when he set out for Palestine (which he never reached). The will expresses the extreme pietism and devotion of the opponents of Ḥasidism in the 18th century. Elijah advised his sons that in order to avoid interrupting their study of Torah they should never set foot outside their houses unless it was absolutely necessary. He even advocated praying at home because the many people congregated in the synagogue might prove distracting or inspire evil thoughts. From these strictures it is not surprising that he was the leader in the opposition to Ḥasidism. In general, ethical wills reflect in a concise and clear way the main concerns of the writer and the social or ideological group within Judaism to which he belongs.