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“Gather Around and I Will Tell You”: Glikl of Hameln and Her Ethical Will

On Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg, Resident Scholar at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, delivered a lecture to the Abraham Arbesfeld Kollel Yom Rishon titled “‘Gather Around and I Will Tell You:’ Glikl of Hameln and Her Ethical Will,” adapted from her Straus Center course at Stern College for Women, Matriarchs and Memoirs.

The lecture was held over Zoom and watched by over 100 participants.


Glikl of Hameln


The lecture focused on the memoirs of Glikl of Hameln, a late 17th-century and early 18th-century mother and businesswoman. Born in Hamburg, Germany, Glikl married Hayyim of Hameln as a teenager and, together, they had 14 children while building a precious gems business.

Sadly, when Hayyim died in his 40s, Glikl was left to take care of their business and children alone. Facing immense pressure and loss, Glikl had trouble sleeping. However, she found some solace in writing, and her late-night sessions eventually translated into a seven-volume masterpiece.

While the last six volumes of her work are classified as memoirs in the classical sense of the term, the first volume is better described as an ethical will. While an estate will instructs the next generation on how to divide and handle property, wealth and so on, an ethical will passes on the spiritual inheritance of the deceased, focusing on the morals and values they wish to see their children live by. This concept began in the biblical era—as we see in the Torah portion Vayechi with Jacob’s blessing to his children—and continued in the Talmud. These formerly oral instructions take written form in the medieval period, with famous scholars such as Nachmanides and Judah ben Saul ibn Tibbon writing some of the most well-known ethical wills. Still, ethical wills were not the sole domain of the famous, and Glikl’s writing can be viewed in the context of this genre, although the degree to which it is autobiographical makes the work unique.

Written in Yiddish, Glikl’s ethical will is full of reflections on prayer, loss, redemption and repentance. The pressure of handling her family’s business and amassing large enough dowries to marry off her many children is also exhibited in the book’s focus on money and her musings on the responsibilities of parents to children and children to parents. Faith and the hope for redemption are themes woven throughout.

Most notably, Glikl is a masterful storyteller. Dr. Koenigsberg argued that Glikl’s stories do more than provide a historical window into her life. They serve as powerful examples to her decedents on how to act. Her reflections on her early days of matrimony reinforce the importance and comfort of Torah study. Glikl described how she spent the first year of her marriage in Hameln, a much smaller town than her birthplace of Hamburg. However, despite describing Hameln as a “miserable place,” she took great comfort in the piety of her father-in-law, whom she would hear praying and studying early in the morning every day right outside her door. Her father in-law’s piety is further exemplified in his rush to pack and move to Israel, following the tidings of Shabtai Tzvi.

Glikl also wrote about the passing of Hayyim, giving readers a glimpse at her very emotional and intimate last moments with her husband. At one point, she described how her son, Reb Leyb, would not leave Hayyim’s bedside and how he passed along his own oral ethical will “by instructing him in moral behavior.” Later on, she recounted how, after getting a final diagnosis from the doctor, she begged her husband to let her hold his hand. But, being the pious man he was, he refused, as she was due to go to the mikvah/ritual bath very soon.

Thus, Glikl shows rather than tells. In place of the outright directives found in traditional ethical wills, Glikl relies on anecdote to get her point across.

Glikl remarried a wealthy banker 10 years after her first husband died. However, he eventually lost all their money and passed away, leaving her living her greatest reservation, penniless and reliant on others. But she found solace in her daughter and son-in-law, who took her in and treated her with the utmost respect. At the end of her life, she took great pride in the household her daughter built for herself.

Still, the final book in the collection is marked by its despondent tone. Glikl described disunity in the Jewish community in which they lived: a fight over who should be the rabbi and then a great tragedy in the shul on Shavous, where a rumble leads people to believe that the shul is collapsing, leaving six women trampled after a frantic mass exit from the building.

But she did not lose her faith and ended her memoirs with a vision of heavens opening, writing, “May G-d, blessed be He, let this bring good, amen.”