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Medieval Sourcebook:
Jewish Ethical Wills,
12th & 14th Centuries


[Marcus Introduction] Many Jews were in the habit of writing wills, in Hebrew, in which they imparted instruction of an ethical and religious nature to their children and to their descendants. Such ethical testaments were not uncommon among Moslems and Christians at this time.

Many of these Jewish ethical wills, such as A Father's Admonition, which follows, are valuable for the insight they give us into the cultural and social life of the individual Jew of some particular land at some specific period. Others, such as the Testament of Eleazar of Mayence [Mainz], are valuable in that they reflect the moral and ethical views of a pious Jew. The texts here are excerpts.

The Admonition of Judah ibn Tibbon (1120­about 1190) is thus particularly important because it throws light on the intellectual interests of a cultured Spanish Jew. Judah ibn Tibbon was born in Granada; he migrated to Lunel, in enlightened southern France, probably because of the religious bigotry of the fanatical Moslem Almohades He was the "father of translators" from Arabic into Hebrew His son, Samuel ibn Tibbon (about 1150­about 1230), for whom this lofty yough rather querulous Admonition was written, succeeded in becoming an even greater translator than his father. Samuel's most valuable piece of work is the translation from Arabic into Hebrew of Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed.

The Testament of Eleazar of Mayence, parts of which follow as the second selection, is the work of the simple and frank German Jew, Eleazar ben Samuel Ha­Levi of Mayence [Mainz], who died in his native city on the first day of the Jewish New Year of 1357.

1. A FATHER'S ADMONITION
The Ethical Will of Judah ibn Tibbon, France, about 1160­1180

My son, list to my precepts, neglect none of my injunctions. Set my admonition before your eyes; thus shall you prosper and prolong your days in pleasantness! ....

You know, my son, how I swaddled your and brought your up, how I led your in the paths of wisdom and virtue. I fed and clothed your; I spent myself in educating and protecting your. I sacrificed my sleep to make your wise beyond your fellows and to raise your to the highest degree of science and morals. These twelve years I have denied myself the usual pleasures and relaxations of men for your sake, and I still toil for your inheritance. [After the death of his wife the father devoted his time to Samuel, his son.]

I have honored your by providing an extensive library for your use, and have thus relieved your of the necessity to borrow books. Most students must bustle about to seek books, often without finding them. But you, thanks be to God, lend and borrow not. many books, indeed, you own two or three copies. I have besides made for your books on all sciences, hoping that your hand might find them all as a nest. [The father probably compiled reference books for the use of the son.]

Seeing that your Creator had graced your with a wise and understanding heart, I journeyed to the ends of the earth and fetched for your a teacher in secular sciences. I minded neither the expense nor the danger of the ways. Untold evil might have befallen me and your on those travels, had not the Lord been with us!

But you, my son! did deceive my hopes. You did not choose to employ your abilities, hiding yourself from all your books, not caring to know them or even their titles. Had you seen your own books in the hand of others, you would not have recognized them; had you needed one of them, you would not have known whether it was with your or not, without asking me; you did not even consult the catalogue of your library....

Therefore, my son! Stay not your hand when I have left your, but devote yourself to the study of the Torah and to the science of medicine. But chiefly occupy yourself with the Torah, for you have a wise and understanding heart, and all that is needful on your part is ambition and application. I know that you wilt repent of the past, as many have repented before your of their youthful indolence. . .

Let your countenance shine upon the sons of men; tend their sick and may your advice cure them. Though you take fees from the rich, heal the poor gratuitously; the Lord will requite your. Thereby shall you find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man. Thus wilt you win the respect of high and low among Jews and non­Jews, and your good name will go forth far and wide You wilt rejoice your friends and make your foes envious. For remember what is written in the Choice of Pearls [53:617, of Ibn Gabirol]l: "How shall one take vengeance on an enemy? By increasing one's own good qualities."....

My son! Examine regularly, once a week, your drugs and medicinal herbs, and do not employ an ingredient whose properties are unknown to your. I have often impressed this on your in vain....

My son! I command your to honor your wife to your utmost capacity. She is intelligent and modest, a daughter of a distinguished and educated family. She is a good housewife and mother, and no spendthrift. Her tastes are simple, whether in food or dress. Remember her assiduous tendance of your in your illness, though she had been brought up in elegance and luxury. Remember how she afterwards reared your son without man or woman to help her. Were she a hired nurse, she would have earned your esteem and forbearance; how much the more, since she is the wife of your bosom, the daughter of the great, art you bound to treat her with consideration and respect. To act otherwise is the way of the contemptible. The Arab philosopher [probably Al­Ghazali, 1058­1112] says of women: "None but the honorable honors them, none but the despicable despises them."....

If you would acquire my love, honor her with all your might; do not exercise too severe an authority over her; our Sages [Gittin 6b] have expressly warned men against this. If you give orders or reprove, let your words be gentle. Enough is it if your displeasure is visible in your look; let it not be vented in actual rage. Let your expenditure be well ordered. It is remarked in the Choice of Pearls [1: 3] "Expenditure properly managed makes half an income." And there is an olden proverb: "Go to bed without supper and rise without debt." Defile not the honor of your countenance by borrowing; may the Creator save your from that habit! ....

Examine your Hebrew books at every New Moon, the Arabic volumes once in two months, and the bound codices once every quarter. [Arabic and Latin were the languages of science in Spain, the Provence, and southern Italy.] Arrange your library in fair orders so as to avoid wearying yourself in searching for the book you need. Always know the case and the chest where the book should be. A good plan would be to set in each compartment a written list of the books therein contained. If, then, you art looking for a book, you can see from the list the exact shelf it occupies without disarranging all the books in the search for one. Examine the those leaves in the volumes and bundles, and preserve them. These fragments contain very important matters which I collected and copied out. Do not destroy any writing or letter of all that I have left. And cast your eve frequently over the catalogue so as to remember what books are in your library.

Never intermit your regular readings with your teacher; study in the college of your master on certain evenings before sitting down to: read with the young. Whatever you have learned from me or from your teachers, impart it again regularly to worthy pupils, so that you may retain it, for by teaching it to others you wilt know it by heart, and their questions will compel your to precision, and remove any doubts from your own mind.

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. [Before the invention of printing each book was written by hand and was therefore expensive.] You know what our sages said in the Talmud, on the text: "Wealth and riches are in his house; and his merit endures for ever." [Ketubot 50a applies this verse, Psalm 112: 3, to one who lends his copies of the Bible.] But, [Proverbs 3:27] "Withhold not good from him to whom it is due," [you owe it to your books to protect them] and take particular care of your books. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality, and preserve them from damp and mice, and from all manner of injury, for your books are your good treasure. If you lend a volume, make a memorandum before it leaves your house, and when it is returned, draw your pen over the entry. Every Passover and Tabernacles [that is, every six months] call in all books out on loan.

I enjoin on your, my son, to read this, my testament, once daily, at morn or at eve. Apply your heart to the fulfillment of its behests, and to the performance of all therein written. Then wilt you make your ways prosperous, then shall you have good success.

2. THE TESTAMENT OF ELEAZAR OF MAYENCE,
Germany, about 1357

These are the things which my sons and daughters shall do at my request. They shall go to the house of prayer morning and evening, and shall pay special regard to the tefillah [ the "Eighteen Benedictions"] and the shema [Deuteronomy 6:4]. So soon as the service is over, they shall occupy themselves a little with the Torah [the Pentateuch], the Psalms, or with works of charity. Their business must be conducted honestly, in their dealings both with Jew and Gentile. They must be gentle in their manners and prompt to accede to every honorable request. They must not talk more than is necessary; by this will they be saved from slander, falsehood, and frivolity. They shall give an exact tithe of all their possessions: they shall never turn away a poor man empty-handed, but must give him what they can, be it much or little. If he beg a lodging over night, and they know him not, let them provide him with the wherewithal to pay an innkeeper. Thus shall they satisfy the needs of the poor in every possible way....

If they can by any means contrive it, my sons and daughters should live in communities, and not isolated from other Jews, so that their sons and daughters may learn the ways of Judaism. Even if compelled to solicit from others the money to pay a teacher, they must not let the young of both sexes go without instruction in the Torah. Marry your children, O my sons and daughters, as soon as their age is ripe, to members of respectable families. [Boys of thirteen and girls of twelve were considered ready for marriage.] Let no child of mine hunt after money by making a low match for that object; but if the family is undistinguished only on the mother's side, it does not matter, for all Israel counts descent from the father's side. ...

I earnestly beg my children to be tolerant and humble to all, as I was throughout my life. Should cause for dissension present itself, be slow to accept the quarrel; seek peace and pursue it with all the vigor at your command. Even if you suffer loss thereby, forbear and forgive, for God has many ways of feeding and sustaining His creatures. To the slanderer do not retaliate with counterattack; and though it be proper to rebut false accusations, yet is it 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 at what belongs to another. For by avoiding these wrongs-scandal, falsehood, money­grubbing-men will surely find tranquillity and affection. And against all evils, silence is the best safeguard

Be very particular to keep your houses clean and tidy. [These ideas are interesting coming from a man who lived through the Black Death of 1349.] I was always scrupulous on this point, for every injurious condition and sickness and poverty are to be found in foul dwellings. Be careful over the benedictions; accept no divine gift without paying back the Giver's part; and His part is man's grateful acknowledgment. [Pay God for His blessings by blessing Him.]..

On holidays and festivals and Sabbaths seek to make happy the poor, the unfortunate, widows and orphans, who should always be guests at your tables; their joyous entertainment is a religious duty. I et me repeat my warning against gossip and scandal. And as you Speak no scandal, so listen to none; for if there were no receivers there would be no bearers of slanderous tales; therefore the reception and credit of slander is as serious an offense as the originating of it. The less you say, the less cause you give for animosity, while . [Proverbs 10:19] "in the multitude of words there wants transgression ." .

I beg of you, my sons and daughters, my wife, and all the congregation, that no funeral oration be spoken in my honor. Do carry my body on a bier, but in a coach. Wash me clean, comb my hair, trim my nails, as I was wont to do in my lifetime, so that may go clean to my eternal rest, as I went clean to synagogue every Sabbath­day. If the ordinary officials dislike the duty, let adequate payment be made to some poor man who shall render this service carefully and not perfunctorily. [The dead were washed by Hebra Kaddisha, "Holy Brotherhood"]

At a distance of thirty cubits from the grave, they shall set my coffin on the ground, and drag me to the grave by a rope attached to the coffin. [This is a symbolic punishment to atone for sins committed during lifetime, and, probably to anticipate the punishment of hell, hibbut ha-keber] Every four cubits they shall stand and wait awhile, doing this in all seven times, so that I may find atonement for my sins. Put me in the ground at the right hand of my father, and if the space be a little narrow I am sure that he loves me well enough to make room for me by his side. If this be altogether impossible put me on his left, or near my grandmother, Yura. Should this also be impractical, let me be buried by the side of my daughter.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

READINCS FOR ADVANCED ST[JDENTS

Lazarus, M., The Ethics of Judaism, 2 vols. This study limits itself to Biblical and Talmudic sources.

Schechter, S., Studies in Judaism, Third Series, pp. 1­24, "Jewish Mediaeval Germany."

Waxman, M., A History of Jewisb Literature, II, pp. 271­300.

JE, "Ethics."

ADDITIONAI. SOURCE MATERIALS IN ENGLISH

Abrahams, I, Hebrew Ethical Wills, 2 vols. A fine collection of Jewish ethical wills.

Millgram, A. E., An Antbology of Mediaeval Hebrew Literature, Chap. IV "What the Mediaeval Jews Considered the Highest Good (Ethical Literature) ."

SOURCE: Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), 309-316. English modernized here.

Later printings of this text (e.g. by Atheneum, 1969, 1972, 1978) do not indicate that the copyright was renewed)


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall October 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu