Everyone knows the importance of writing a legal will, and every Jew should be equally aware of the importance of writing a legal will which conforms to Judaic law and practice. But how to draft a will Jewishly doesn’t stop at a civil will – it only begins. Below, we will discuss a crucial add-on to a Jewish civil will: the Jewish advance healthcare directive (which is also known as an advance directive, advance care directive, or Jewish medical directive). However you choose to refer to it, the importance of this document is clear just from its legal status: it typically constitutes a formal addendum to a civil-Jewish will.
(A Jewish advance healthcare directive should therefore not be confused with a Jewish ethical will, another document sometimes referred to as a “Jewish will”. A Jewish ethical will is only stored with a civil will as a matter of convenience, but has no legal significance.)
Why, then, are both advance health directives and Jewish ethical wills referred to as “Jewish wills”? The answer is simple: because the essence of both these documents says so much about Judaism’s view on life, death, and the purpose of life – giving.
The Jewish Will for Life: The Advance Directive
In a world of uncertainty, advance care directives are a necessity. A Jewish advance directive, simply put, directs what kinds of medical care should (and should not) be used in case, G-d forbid, of medical incapacity or emergency. In other words, the document is simply chock-full of medical care instructions. It is therefore sometimes referred to as a halachic living will, since it instructs, in accordance with halacha (Jewish law), how life should be maintained and respected.
A good advance directive therefore also delineates what treatment a person’s body should receive after death. As a core principle of halachic Jewish law, Judaism dictates respectful handling of the body, even after the soul has left, because of the sanctified spark of G-d it housed within it during life. Moreover, Judaism views the body of the deceased as a vessel of potential that will one day be filled with renewed life. Therefore, the body needs to remain intact, and should receive the burial rites and purification process prescribed by Jewish tradition.
Why is an Advance Directive So Important?
Many health care providers and emergency responders have no familiarity with Judaism. It is therefore all the more important to spell out halachic requirements in an advance health directive, so that your medical instructions are fully adhered to.
Furthermore, an advance healthcare directive appoints a healthcare proxy, or agent (sometimes known as a ‘power of attorney for health care’, or ‘durable power of attorney for health care’), to represent one’s interests under emergency conditions. This ensures that all medical personnel have someone to communicate with about the interests and wishes of the patient.
In many states, the law dictates that certain procedures which contravene halachic traditions governing end-of-life matters – not to mention treatment of the body after death (i.e. autopsy and cremation) – can be legally conducted unless an advance care directive expressly states otherwise. That’s why this kind of Jewish medical directive as an addendum to your will is crucial to have.
For this reason, many people also carry around a copy of their advance directive in a special wallet so that in case of an accident, G-d forbid, medical personnel can have immediate instructions to follow. Due to its importance, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha (NASCK), the premier organization in the U.S. advocating for end-of-life religious rights for the Jewish community, has championed a campaign to spread awareness and offer resources to facilitate preparation of a Halachic living. The NASCK site offers a free “how to write a will” service, where you can request what they call an EMES card. The card is basically an abbreviated template that serves as a Jewish advance healthcare directive. Once customized and printed, it can be attached to a driver’s license for immediate viewing by emergency responders in case of need.
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Advance Directive Writing 101
What Should an Advance Directive Include?
- The concept of maintaining control of your assets during your lifetime is an essential aspect of financial and estate planning. This ensures you have the financial stability and resources you need to sustain your lifestyle, meet your obligations, and pursue your passions or hobbies. When you maintain control over your assets, you have the flexibility and freedom to decide where your resources are allocated. This extends to significant decisions such as purchasing a new property, investing in business ventures, or supporting causes you believe in. It also grants you the ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances or emergencies that may require substantial financial resources. Thus, controlling your assets is not merely about the ability to use your wealth but also about safeguarding your future and ensuring a comfortable lifestyle.
- Designate an executor. When drafting an advance healthcare directive, you can use the same executor as your civil will, or appoint a rabbi. Today, there are many organizations and medical experts in the Jewish world who specialize in providing rabbis with the resources and know-how that sometimes becomes necessary when dealing with sensitive end-of-life issues, so a rabbi granted durable power of attorney for healthcare is an ideal choice. A community rabbi who does not feel adequately equipped can refer you to rabbis who have specialized knowledge in the arena of modern medicine and halacha.
- Leverage charity as a merit. In your Jewish advance directive – the addendum to your civil-Jewish will – you may consider adding a clause instructing that charity be given on your behalf in case of medical crisis, a custom which is discussed extensively by Medieval halachic authorities. Interestingly enough, there is no limit on the amount of charity you can give as a merit for recovery: in Judaism, life is priceless because it automatically and always entails the godly act of giving.
Planning Well for your Will: An Advance Directive Template
As you prepare your Jewish will, it is essential to consider how you can integrate halacha (Jewish law) and Jewish values into your estate planning. By doing so, you ensure that your legacy is in harmony with your beliefs and commitments. Through thoughtfully crafting an advance care directive as an addendum to your civil will, you can create a lasting impact that reflects your dedication to your faith and community.
Here are some examples of medical instructions to include as part of your advance care planning which are based on important values of Jewish tradition and halacha related to post-death customs:
- Tahara: My body shall undergo Tahara, the ritual cleansing and purification process, performed by a Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society).
- Tachrichim: Following the Tahara, I request to be dressed in traditional white burial shrouds (tachrichim).
- Wooden casket: I prefer a simple, unadorned wooden casket without metal parts, consistent with Jewish tradition.
- Timely burial: I desire to be buried as soon as possible after death, ideally within 24 hours, in accordance with Jewish customs.
- K’riah: My close relatives shall perform the K’riah ritual, which involves tearing a piece of clothing as a sign of mourning.
- Shiva: My family shall observe the traditional seven-day mourning period known as Shiva, during which they shall refrain from work and receive visitors who come to offer condolences.
- Kaddish: I request that my children recite Kaddish (Jewish memorial services) for me in accordance with Jewish customs. If they are unable or unwilling to recite Kaddish themselves, I ask that they make arrangements to have Kaddish recited on my behalf by a suitable individual or through a reputable organization.
Leveraging Charity as a Merit for Life:
Support Rebbe Meir Baal Haness Tzedakah in Your Living Will
As you embark on the important task of writing your Jewish advance directive, you have the unique opportunity to create a lasting legacy which can impact your life and the lives of countless others for generations to come. Instructing that charity be leveraged as a merit for you – whether for recovery in case of emergency or as a means of elevating your soul on High after death – can make all the difference in this world and the next.
Rebbe Meir Baal Haness Tzedakah has a long-standing reputation for providing assistance to those who need it most, regardless of their background or circumstances. By supporting this organization, you are actively participating in the mitzvah of tzedakah, a cornerstone of Jewish values, and demonstrating your dedication to making the world a better place. Your contribution will ensure that Rebbe Meir Baal Haness Tzedakah can continue its vital work of alleviating suffering, offering hope, and transforming lives. Leaving such a request in your advance health directive as a merit for recovery in case of illness means that one of the lives transformed through the work of Rebbe Meir Baal Haness could be your very own.