Giving children your blessing: a rabbis tips for ethical wills

You'd really like to write an ethical will for your children or maybe your grandchildren. You know you should write one.

It's something tangible that you can leave them, a piece of yourself, more valuable than any thing in your estate. You want to tell them what's important to you. How you'd like to see them live their lives. How you feel about them.

Pass on what life has taught you. But you just can't get past that blank piece of paper. Just as its possibilities are limitless so are the fears it evokes. So how do you get started?

Rabbi Bruce Kadden of Temple Beth El in Salinas says the best way to start writing is by reading other ethical wills such as those in "So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them" by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer.

They give an idea of what some ethical wills contain and also can spark ideas. Ethical wills are a Jewish tradition dating back to the Bible and take many forms. "In the biblical tradition, there are a number of examples of fathers giving blessings to their sons at the end of their lives," said Kadden.

"It was carried on in the rabbinic tradition, and in the Middle Ages rabbis began writing documents that became known as ethical wills with values they hoped their children would practice, things to be done or not done.

[It's a tradition that] continues to the present day." With his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, the rabbi has authored his own how-to booklet titled "Ethical Wills: Handing Down our Jewish Heritage." When he teaches classes on writing an ethical will, he suggests that people spend some time reflecting and thinking about what they want to say before putting pen to paper.

"Think about those values that are important to pass on and what you would say to your loved ones if you only had one more opportunity to speak to them," said Kadden. "There's no formal requirements or perimeters of how it should be written or what should be in it.

For the most part it takes the form of teachings parents want to pass on to their children or grandchildren. [It can be] used as an opportunity to summarize what's important in their lives."

According to Kadden, ethical wills often address issues such as tzedakah, observance of Shabbat and other holidays, the centrality of family to Jewish life or sometimes a specific mitzvah or practice that was particularly important to the individual.

An ethical will can become part of a family's archive and it's an opportunity to speak to a generation that the ethical will's author may not live to see.

And if you think you have to be old enough to qualify for a senior-citizen discount before starting an ethical will, think again.

"It can be done at any age," said Kadden. "It helps a person think about what is important in their life, what they want to teach their children and how they want to go about living their life." It's also OK to review, edit and make additions to the will as time passes.

Esther Rubke of Piedmont remembers having to write an ethical will as part of a Jewish studies course she was taking while in her early 40s. When the assignment was given, everyone in the class groaned including Rubke, but once she got started, the exercise proved valuable on many levels.

"It's like doing a mission statement. It helps you clarify what's important to you in addition to leaving it behind [in a written document]," said Rubke.

"I just started writing and it just started coming. A lot of emotional things came up." Not only did it help her focus on the values that are important to her such as family, community, Judaism and leadership, but it also made her think about the reality of death.

"The writing process is very tangible," said Rubke. "It's a recognition that there's an end. [Life] is not going to go on forever.

It wasn't in my agenda for that part of my life." In her ethical will, Rubke also told her children how much she cares for them and how much she loves them. Although this is something her children hear on a daily basis, it doesn't hurt to have it in writing.

As for the rest, Rubke said there are no surprises, nothing that her children don't already know. "My kids get enough lectures from me so they know how I think," she said.

"Ethical Wills: Handing Down our Jewish Heritage" by Bruce Kadden and Barbara Binder Kadden is available on line at for $1.90 per copy.

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