What is an Ethical Will?

An ethical will is called a tzava’a in Hebrew. Think of it as ethical and emotional estate planning. Some read the book of Deuteronomy as Moses’ ethical will or farewell speech to the Israelites, where he reviews their history together, teaches some laws in preparation for when he is no longer their leader, and gives them general advice.

Throughout history, some people left ethical wills because they didn’t have anything of real material value to pass on to the next generation apart from their wisdom. An ethical will is more formal than a legacy letter. It is often attached to a will or estate document so that those who come after us will have pieces of the wisdom and experience we’ve learned throughout our life.

Ethical Wills usually answer three central questions:

  • Do those closest to me know my burial wishes?
  • Do those I care about know what is most important to me and what I’ve learned through experience?
  • Have I said everything that I need to say to my family and friends?

An Ethical Will Structure

Personal Information

  • Favorite photo of yourself and the story behind it
  • Your personal story/history
  • Transformative events in your life
  • Historical events that you lived through that shaped the way you think and act
  • Objects of significance that tell a piece of your life story

Personal Happiness and Satisfaction

  • Most impactful quote
  • Places of significance to you and why
  • Small things that have brought you happiness
  • Favorite or important rituals
  • Relationship with G-d
  • Why the Jewish people and our future matters to you

The Role of Others

  • Enumerate what you love about each person who is significant in your life
  • Thank and acknowledge what each of those people has brought you
  • What you learned from your parents • What your children taught you
  • Thoughts on family

Life Advice

  • Spiritual values or rules you live by
  • Your life advice about friendship
  • Your life advice about love/marriage
  • Your life advice about work
  • Your life advice about education/knowledge


  • Most important charitable causes and why
  • Why you decided to take the Jewish Future Pledge • How you used money to make a difference
  • Your life advice about money


  • Mistakes and regrets
  • Asking for forgiveness generally or from certain individuals • Granting forgiveness generally or to certain individuals

Burial Requests

  • Type of burial
  • Location of burial
  • Requested speakers at the funeral
  • Requested rituals at the funeral, including prayer, poems
    and songs to be included.

Books to help you write an ethical will

Ethical Wills & How to Prepare Them: A Guide to Sharing Your Values from Generation to Generation

by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer

The Wealth of Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide for Creating Your Ethical Will Spiral-bound

by Susan B. Turnbull

Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper

by Barry K. Baines

So Grows The Tree – Creating an Ethical Will: The legacy of your beliefs and values, life lessons and hopes for the future

Kindle Edition by Jo Kline Cebuhar