The Ethical Will

On the day after his funeral in 1916, Sholem Aleichem’s will appeared in the pages of The New York Times and was read into the congressional record. Called “one of the greatest ethical wills in history,” it contained burial directives, charges to his children and specific instructions as to the commemoration of the anniversary of his death. He told his friends and family to gather, “read my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the very merry ones, and recite it in whatever language is most intelligible to you.” “Let my name be recalled with laughter,” he added, “or not at all.”

NOTE: Click on the highlighted phrases to see additional media and commentary by Professor Jeremy Dauber.

I ask that it be opened and published on the day of my death.

Today, the day after Yom Kippur, a New Year has just begun, and a great misfortune has befallen my family. My oldest son, Misha (Michael) Rabinowitz, has died, and with him part of my life has gone down into the grave. It remains for me now to redraw my will, which I had written in Nerve, Italy, when sick there in 1908.

Being in good health and of sound mind, I write my will, which consists of ten parts:

I. Wherever I die I want to be placed not among aristocrats, or among the powerful, but among plain Jewish laborers, among the very people itself, so that the gravestone that is to be placed on my grave should illumine the simple graves about me; and these simple graves should adorn my gravestone, even as the plain, good people during my lifetime illumined their Folksschreiber.

II. No titles of any kind, with praises, with Rabbinical honors, should be placed upon my gravestone, with the exception of the name Sholem Aleichem on the one side and the Jewish inscription, herewith inclosed, on the other side.

III. There should be no kind of debate or discussion among my colleagues as to making my name eternal, as to a monument to be erected in New York, &c. I shall not be able to rest quietly in my grave if my colleagues make themselves foolish. The best monument for me will be if my works are read and if there be found among the better-to-do classes of our people Maecenases who will publish and distribute my works in Yiddish or in other languages, and thus give the people the possibility of reading and for my family an honorable existence. If I have not been worthy or have not earned Maecenases during my lifetime, perhaps I shall be worthy of them after my death. I go away from the world in the full belief that the people will not forsake my orphans.

IV. At my grave and throughout a whole year, and then every year on the Jahrzeit, my remaining son, and my sons-in-law, if they are so minded, should say Kaddish after me. And if they do not wish to do this, or if they have no time for it, or if it be against their religious convictions, they can be absolved from this duty only if they all come together with my daughters and my grandchildren and with good friends, and read this my will, and also select one of my stories, one of the really joyous ones, and read it aloud in whatever language they understand best, and let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.

V. My children and children’s children can have whatever religious convictions they will. But I beg of them to guard their Jewish descent. Those of my children who want to cut themselves off from their race and want to join another faith have by that very desire already cut themselves off from their race and their family, and have thus erased themselves from my will, “and they shall have no portion and inheritance among their brethren.”

VI. Everything that I have, be it money—if any such thing be in my possession—be it books, printed or in manuscript, in Yiddish or in other languages (except those translated into Hebrew), belongs to my wife Hodel, the daughter of Elimelech, (Olga Rabinowitz,) and after her death it belongs to my children in equal parts: to my daughter, Chaye Esther Berkowitz; to my daughter, Sarah Kaufman; to my daughter, Naomi Rabinowitz;

to my daughter, Miriam Rabinowitz; and to my son, Hanum Rabinowitz. And as to my works in Hebrew, they belong to that master-translator, my son-in-law, J.D. Berkovits, and to his daughter, my grandchild, Tamar (Tamara) Berkowitz, and to his daughter, my grandchild, Tamar Berkowitz—that should be her marriage dowry.

The royalties which result from my plays in Russia or in America should go half to my heirs and half should be set aside in the name of my grandchild Bella, the daughter of Michael and Sarah Kaufman—that should be her marriage dowry.

VII. Out of all the of the income mentioned in the foregoing paragraph there should be taken for the Fund for Jewish Writers (in Yiddish and in Hebrew) 5 per cent., up to 5,000 roubles, and if the income be more than 5000 roubles a year, 10 per cent., (e.g., from 6,000 rubles 600, from 7,000 roubles 700, from 8,000 roubles 800, &c.) If at that time there be such a fund here in America or there in Europe, the percentage shall be paid into the fund yearly, and the fund will act according to its statutes. If, however, at that time there be no official fund, or if there be a fund that does not correspond with my will as mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, the percentages shall be distributed among the most needy authors by my heirs direct after agreement among themselves.

VIII. If I am not able during my lifetime to place a stone over the grave of my recently deceased son, Michael (Misha) Rabinowitz, in Copenhagen, my heirs should do this with a generous hand, and on his Jahrzeit every year Kaddish should be said, and there should be given to the poor 18 crowns charity.

IX. My wish is that my heirs should so arrange that my works and my plays not be sold in perpetuity either here in America or in Europe. They should try to live from the permanent income due according to law. Should there, however, come a time, or should there be found such a fool who will pay for the privilege a sum that will suffice for their support of a family, then all the heirs shall consult with one another, and if the majority agree, the money should be divided, share and share alike, in accordance with Paragraph VII. But first of all the 10 per cent shall be deducted for the Jewish Literary Fund, in accordance with Paragraph VII.

X. My last wish to my successors and my prayer to my children: “To protect mamma, to beautify her old age, to make her bitter life sweet, to heal her broken heart, not to weep after me, on the contrary, speak of me with joy; and the main thing—to live together in peace, to bear no hatred one for another, to help one another in bad times, to remember one another upon occasion in the family, to have pity on a poor man, and when circumstances permit, to pay my debts, should I have any. Children! Carry with honor my hard-earned Jewish name, and may God in Heaven come to your help. Amen!

—Sholem ben Menachem Rabinowitz,
Sholem Aleichem