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“My daughters ought not to laugh and speak much with strangers, nor dance. They ought always to be at home, and not be gadding about. They must not stand at the door. Most strongly I beg…they must spin, or cook, or sew.”

These words come from a 14th century ethical will by Eleazar of Mainz. Unlike financial wills, ethical wills bequeath spiritual advice. They include exhortations on cleanliness and dress as well as admonitions regarding honesty and immodesty.

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In the Middle Ages, Sephardim often began writing ethical wills when their children were young and completed them over the course of a few decades so that fathers, in the same document, often write to their progeny when they were children and when they were adults.

Considering the centrality of marriage in life, it’s no surprise that Medieval Sephardic ethical wills contain an abundance of advice on this subject. Yehuda ben Asheri, a 14th century father, for example, recommends that his children only select spouses from among his relatives: “The women of our family are accustomed to the ways of scholars, and help them to prosecute their studies. They have no luxurious tastes, and do not worry their husbands with extravagant expenditure, and children mostly resemble their mothers.”

Another 14th century father, Joseph ibn Caspi, states: “[W]hen you are 20, marry a wife of good family, beautiful in body and character. Look not for a wealthy dowry, as money is only the means to obtain bread to eat and garments to wear.”

A third father urges his married son not to take his wife for granted. After listing her many qualities, he writes, “[W]ere she a hired nurse, she would have earned thy esteem and forbearance; how much the more since she is the wife of thy bosom.”

One of the more familiar features of ethical wills is disappointment over the frivolous behavior of youth. One 14th century man named Yehuda from Toledo writes, “Why do you not walk in the ways of your fathers?… You mix with unfit companions… What have I left undone that a father could do? You have been fed and tended; you have many books, and all my thoughts were for you… You were not brought into this world to eat and drink and to dress in fine clothes.”

In ethical wills, some fathers encourage their children to dress well and represent the role of Torah scholar with dignity, while others encourage asceticism. Jacob Asheri, a 14th century scholar, for example, beseeches his offspring, “Do not indulge in bodily pleasures except to the extent necessary for keeping yourselves healthy for the service of G-d.”

In his ethical will, Yehuda ibn Tibbon, a famous 12th century translator and physician, encourages mastering Arabic and the sciences, in addition to studying Torah, which takes precedence, he writes. He also stresses that his son should value the great library that he, Yehuda, amassed over the years:

“Make thy books thy companions. Let thy cases and shelves be thy pleasure-grounds and gardens… Cover thy bookcases with rugs of fine quality, and preserve them from damp and mice, and from all manner of injury, for thy books are thy good treasure.”

(He also recommends eating in a healthy fashion so that his son – also a doctor – will inspire trust in his patients who will see a healthy and fit doctor before them. He also suggests that his son cultivate excellent penmanship and grammar because “a man’s mistakes are forever quoted against him.”)

Medieval ethical wills also contain much advice on religious improvement. In one heartwarming document, a father entreats his son not to fall pray to arrogance and never to fear asking halachic advice when he is uncertain how to act. The father describes his own embarrassing experience hosting a large party and learning that the butter spoon had been used to prepare meat. Despite the crowd waiting to be served, he writes that he ran to the house of the rabbi to consult him before feeding his guests.

In a tragic ethical letter of instruction to a student to be read after his passing, R’ Solomon Alami explains why ills are befalling the community. He says one of the generation’s great sins is disrespect for the synagogue and prayer. “If you look around a place of worship where a teacher expounds on the law, you will find the rich people asleep, the others engaged in idle talk, and the women in chatter. Should the speaker reprimand them, the situation would grow worse.”

He also condemns his contemporaries’ indulgence in secular music and writes, “Avoid listening to love-songs which excite the passions. If G-d has graciously bestowed on you the gift of a sweet voice, use it in praising Him. Do not set prayers to Arabic tunes, a practice which has been promoted to suit the taste of effeminate men.”

The authors of many ethical wills make interesting requests of their children. One asks that his offspring treat his remains harshly during burial. Another asks that his body be given a mock version of the four methods of Jewish execution so that he be absolved of his sins. A number of them ask that no eulogies be said upon their death. Some fathers explain they are afraid their sons will transgress the laws of flattery and falsehood.

Some ask to be buried specifically among the poor. Interestingly, one poverty-stricken father asks that he be buried in a “comfortable” grave rather than a narrow one. At least in his death, he wouldn’t dwell in cramped quarters. Another requests that handfuls of soil from Eretz Yisrael be used for his burial.

 

The Will of Eleazar of Mainz

Although there are quite a number of ethical wills from medieval Ashkenaz, the will of Eleazer of Mainz is a favorite among historians as it arguably represents the view of an “ordinary” Jew from this period since Eleazer was not a rabbi.

Lacking the poetry that some other ethical wills display, Eleazer’s final will and testament is a straightforward appeal to his children’s better natures. For example, he writes:

“These are the things that my sons and daughters shall do at my request. They shall go to the house of prayer morning and evening… They shall occupy themselves a little with the law, the Psalms, or with deeds of charity. Their business must be conducted honestly; their dealings must be straightforward with Jews and non-Jews.”

Eleazar stresses the importance of charity, asking that his children never “turn away a poor man empty-handed.” Even if they are strapped for cash, they should give him “much or little,” and if the person is seeking lodging and they are unsure whether he is safe to host, they should at least “supply him with money that he can pay an innkeeper.”

He urges his daughters to “respect their husbands exceedingly” and to his sons to respect their wives. He asks his children to live close to other Jews, so that they can secure a robust religious life and an education for both “sons and daughters” even “if compelled to beg for money to pay a teacher.”

After offering spiritual instruction, Eleazar turns to more pragmatic issues like dress: “Accustom yourselves and wives, your sons and daughters, always to wear nice and clean clothes, that G-d and men may love and honor you. Spend a little more than you can afford in this way, but you must not adopt non-Jewish fashions of dress. Never change the fashions of your fathers in your attire, and let your cloaks be broad without a buckle attached.”

He also encourages them “to keep your houses clean and tidy,” noting that sickness and poverty are often found in unclean houses. And then there’s his eloquent closing statement:

“Speak no scandal [and] listen to none, for if there were no customers, there would be no mongers.”

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