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
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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© Paul Halsall October 1997