Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Book of Life

Many Jews spend hours and hours standing together and praying for God to write their names in the “Book of Life” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Shofar on Rosh Hashanah,blowing , Amsterdam, 1707

The term “book of life” appears only once in the Hebrew Bible, in Psalm 69:

Erase them from the seifer chayim,

                        And do not inscribe them among the righteous!  (Psalm 69:29)

seifer (סֵפֶר) = book, account written on a scroll.

chayim (חַיִּים) = [of] life, lives, living.

The psalmist is begging God to punish the enemies who have reviled and tortured him.1 Moses takes a more noble approach in a story that implies God keeps a “book of life”; after the people worship a golden calf, Moses tells God:

“And now, if [only] you will pardon their sin! But if not, please erase me from your seifer that you have inscribed.” (Exodus 32:32)

The Talmud elaborates on the metaphor of the seifer chayim by saying that on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in a third book until Yom Kippur, ten days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.2

Gehinnom was named after the Valley of Hinnom, where Jersualem’s trash was burned

What happens to the people whose names are listed in God’s books? The account in the Talmud adds that those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked suffer in the fires of Gehinnom after death.

But the prayers for God to “inscribe us in the Book of Life” in the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy omit any reference to a possibility of life after death. 3 Instead, the Book of Life lists the names of everyone will live in the world for the next year. The individuals God does not write down will die before the year is over.

This idea motivated Jews to pray repeatedly for God to write down their names, just in case they had been omitted from the book.

One addition to the first prayer of the Amidah (the standing prayer) on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Unetaneh Tokef. 4 It features a chant with this refrain:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Tzom Kippur it is sealed.

Rosh Hashanah (רֺאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) = head of the year.

Yom Tzom Kippur (יוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר) = day of the fast of kipur (כִּפּוּר = atonement, reconciliation).

Here is one translation5 of the verses that are punctuated by that refrain:

~How many shall slip away and how many shall be created?

~Who shall live and who shall die?

~~~Who at their natural end and who before?

~~~Who by water and who by fire?

~~~Who by sword and who by wild beast?

~~~Who by hunger and who by thirst?

~~~Who by earthquake and who by plague?

~~~Who by strangling and who by stoning?

~Who shall rest and who shall roam?

~Who shall be peaceful and who shall be harried?

~Who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched?

~Who shall sink and who shall rise?

The first two questions are directly about the “Book of Life”. How many people will die, and how many will be born? Who will still be alive in a year, and who will die during the year?

The middle six lines refer to various ways to die. Death awaits us all, but just as we do not know when it will come, we do not know how it will happen.

The last four questions are not even about life versus death; they bring up other unknowns. Even if we live the whole year, we cannot know what our lives will be like. Will something either make us settle down or uproot us? Will it be an easy year, or a year full of difficulties?

The chant concludes:

But teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah bypass the ro-a of the decree!

teshuvah (תְשׁוּבָה) = return, repentance. (From the verb shuv, שׁוּב = turn, return, change.)

tefilah (תְפִלָּה) = prayer. (From the verb paleil, פַּלֵּל = ask God for a favorable judgment or a pardon, intercede with God on someone else’s behalf, plead with God for a miracle. In post-biblical times, prayer also came to mean praising God or expressing appreciation for God’s works.

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = good deeds, right behavior. (From the root verb tzadak (צָדַק) = was justified, was not guilty, was ethical.)

ro-a (רֺעַ) = badness, ugliness, perverseness. (Related to ra, רַע = bad, evil.)

If you repent all your misdeeds and reform, and you appreciate God’s gifts, and you act as ethically as you can, then will God inscribe your name in the Book of Life for another year? No. Good people die every year—some because of very old age, and some by disasters such as those mentioned in the Unetaneh Tokef chant.

However, death does not have to be bad, ugly, or perverse. Even if God decrees the time and the means of our deaths, we get to decide whether this fate is evil or not. Of course we can always imagine what we would do if only we could live longer. But the real question is what we have already done with our life.

Both those facing death and their survivors are comforted when they know that by the end of life there was teshuvah (anyone the person wronged received an apology or compensation or acknowledgement, whatever sort of repentance was still possible); there was tefilah (the person appreciated life, the universe, and everything); and there was tzedakah (the person did what was right).

May we all die well, when the time comes. And as the year 5783 begins,6 may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year!

  1. Psalm 69 is written in the first person singular, from the viewpoint of someone whose service to God is public (and irritating to those who reject God or God’s laws). Therefore the psalmist is probably a priest or Levite, and therefore male. However, it is possible that the narrator is a female prophet or nazir, and the pronoun in this sentence should be “her”.
  2. Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b.
  3. These prayers were added by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.
  4. Unetaneh Tokef (וּנְתַנֶּה תֺּקֶף) = And now we give (an account of) the power (of God) … (These words introduce the subsequent prayer.)
  5. (Mine.)
  6. Year 5783 in the Hebrew calendar began at sunset on September 25, 2022.

Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: Our Father, Our King

A king, 15-13th cent. BCE, Hazor

Avinu malkeinu, we have missed the mark before you.

Avinu malkeinu, we have no king other than you.

avinu (אָבִינוּ) = our father.

malkeinu (מַלְכֵּנוּ) = our king.

These are the first two verses of a prayer sung from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur to ask God to forgive our misdeeds of the past year.  (The new year, 5781, began on Friday evening, and Yom Kippur will end the evening of September 28, 2020 in the secular calendar.)

The Avinu Malkeinu prayer can be traced to the Talmud, which records a story about Rabbi Akiva’s prayer during a drought.1  Akiva’s teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, prayed for rain.

Rabbi Akiva, Mantua Haggadah, 1568

And he recited twenty-four blessings, but he was not answered.  Rabbi Akiva descended before the ark after him and said: “Our Father, our King, we have no king other than You. Our Father, our King, for Your sake, have mercy on us.”  And rain immediately fell. The Sages were whispering among themselves that Rabbi Akiva was answered while his teacher, Rabbi Eliezer, was not.  A Divine Voice emerged and said: “It is not because this Sage, Rabbi Akiva, is greater than that one, Rabbi Eliezer, but that this one is forgiving, and that one is not forgiving.  God responded to Rabbi Akiva’s forgiving nature in kind by sending rain.”  (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 25b, The William Davidson Talmud,

Over the centuries more verses were added to Rabbi Akiva’s original two verses, all beginning with the words Avinu malkeinu.2

The first book of Isaiah, dated to the 8th century B.C.E., warns King Ahaz of Judah about dangers from other nations and urges him not to become a vassal of Assyria.  The prophet calls God, not King Ahaz, malkeinu:

For God is our judge

          Who issues decrees;

God is malkeinu;

          [God] rescues us.  (Isaiah 33:22)

A king here is not only a judge and a legislator, but also the one who rescues his subjects from foreign threats.

Prophet Isaiah, by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The second book of Isaiah, dated to 540 B.C.E. or later, predicts that God will return the exiles in Babylonia to their homeland of Judah.  The prophet reminds God that the Israelites are like children waiting for their parent to rescue them:

For you are avinu.

          Even if Abraham did not know us

          And Israel did not recognize us

You, God, are avinu.

            Our redeemer from long ago is your name.  (Isaiah 63:16)

A father knows his children, and if they become slaves he redeems them.

If God is like our father and our king, then each of us is like a child or a servant to God.  In fact, the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah includes a special three-part section with the following words after each set of shofar blasts:

Today the world is born.  [God] makes all creations of all worlds stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants.  If as children, have compassion toward us like the compassion of a father for children!  And if as servants, our eyes hang on you until you pardon us and you release our verdict like a light, fear-inspiring Holy One!

What does it mean to be like a child to God?

Although children may be born with some instincts about fairness and kindness, they have a lot to learn.  When they miss the mark, or even commit serious violations, children should be guided to realize that what they did was wrong and taught to repent, apologize, and make amends.  A good human parent or mentor can do this with unflagging love for the child.

A child without help from an adult either misses out, or learns slowly through trial and error and close observation.  The bible offers some rules about morality and about how to right the wrongs we do, but these hints are easy to overlook in the flood of narrative and ancient case law.

And although God may continue to love us when, like children, we miss the mark out of ignorance or naivety in a new situation, God does not provide the kind of instruction and guidance that humans can.  Only after we have developed a mature sense of right and wrong, and a process for righting the wrongs we do, is it possible to hear the voice of God inside our own consciences.  We need good humans in our lives before we can grow up and become good humans ourselves.

What does it mean to be like a servant to God?

In an absolute monarchy, the ruler’s subjects are like servants.  Some are obedient minions of the monarchs themselves.  Others are public servants who help, advise, and make requests of the monarch as they work for the good of the kingdom.

Do we serve God by obeying as many of God’s original orders to the Israelites as we can, even if God issued them several millennia ago?  Do we take the biblical command to exterminate Canaanites as an order to exterminate Palestinians?  Do we stone women who are not virgins on their wedding day?  Do we obey other ancient rules that seem unethical by modern standards?

Or do we serve God by working for the good of God’s kingdom?  In the book of Genesis God creates the world and then lets human beings rule over it.3  Now human beings are becoming absolute rulers of the world, and we are doing it badly; pollution has led to global climate catastrophe, and intolerance has prevented us from working together for mutual aid.  We need to improve as human beings so we can rescue God’s world.


Here is the final verse of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu:

Avinu malkeinu, be gracious to us and answer us.

          Even if we have no [good] deeds

          Treat us with charity and kindness, and rescue us.

We pray for God, our father, our king, to forgive us for our failings the previous year and rescue us from the consequences.  But as adults, we have to rescue ourselves—by doing the appropriate good deeds.

Now that I am no longer a child, I pray to the still small voice of God within for inspiration on how to recognize my misdeeds, how to make amends graciously, and how to change my approach to life so I can gradually learn to do better.

And when I think of God as a parent or a monarch, I imagine God silently praying for us wayward servants to pull ourselves together, turn around, and collectively rescue the world by doing what only human beings can do: teaching our children, restoring our planet, and treating everyone with charity and kindness.

  1. Akiva ben Yoseif, called “Rabbi Akiva” in the Talmud, lived in Judea 30-135 C.E.
  2. The total number of verses used for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) ranges from 27 in the Yemenite tradition to 53 in the tradition of the Jews of Salonika.
  3. Genesis 1:26.

Rosh Hashanah: Remembering

A new year begins on the evening of September 9, 2018: the first day of the month of Tishrei and the year 5779 in the Hebrew calendar.

Shofar (horn for blasts)

… the first of the month1 will be for you a day of complete rest, of zikhron, of horn blasts; a holy convocation.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:24)

zikhron (זִכְרוֹן), zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) = remembrance, memorial, record.  (Derived from the verb zakhar, זָכָר = remembered, brought to mind.)

Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) is also called Yom Ha-zikaron (“Day of Remembrance”), even though it lasts for two days.2

Who is doing the remembering on Yom Ha-zikaron?  And what is remembered?

In the Torah

In the Hebrew Bible, prophets in Deuteronomy through Malachi warn the Israelites to keep God in mind, so that they will obey God’s laws and worship only the God of Israel.  When the Israelites forget God and worship other gods, they are punished.3  When times are good, Moses says, the people must remember that their bounty comes from God.  (See my post Eikev, Ve-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  In many psalms, the poets remember God when they are suffering, and ask why God has forgotten them.4

Channah Prays,
by Marc Chagall

God also remembers the Israelites again and again.  The bible portrays God remembering the covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the Israelites who left Egypt, and with all the children of Israel.5  God also remembers individuals; for example, when a long-childless woman finally becomes pregnant, the bible says that God remembers her and opens her womb.  The haftarah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Channah’s successful prayer for a child.6

In the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy

Just as some psalmists pray for God to remember them, on Rosh Hashanah Jews pray for God to remember us for a good life—and to keep this in mind by writing down the names of everyone who will live for another year in a “Book of Life”. 7

The following sentences asking God to remember us in the Book of Life are inserted in every Amidah (“standing prayer”) during Rosh Hashanah:

by Jakub Weinles

In the first prayer:  Zakhreinu for life, king who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life!  (Avot)

zakhreinu (זָכְרֵנוּ) = remember us, bring us to mind.    (An imperative of the verb zakhar.)

In the second prayer:  Who is like you, merciful father, zokheir his creatures for life!  (Gevurot)

zokheir (זוֹכֵר) = who remembers, who brings to mind.  (A participle of the verb zakhar.)

In the fourth prayer:  … on this Yom Ha-zikaron.  Zakhreinu on it for goodness, God, our God, and commission us on it for blessing …  (Kedushat Hayom)

In the sixth prayer:  And inscribe all the children of your covenant for a good life!  (Modim)

And in the seventh prayer:  In the Book of Life, [for] blessing and peace and a good livelihood and good decisions, salvations and consolations, nizakheir and may we be inscribed before you, we and all the people of the House of Israel, for a good life and for peace. (Shalom)

nizakheir (נִזָּכֵר) = may we be remembered, may we come to mind.  (The nifil imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

On regular weekdays. Jews traditionally pray the Amidah three times a day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening.8  But during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we pray the Amidah 18 times!9  And each time, we pray for God to remember us and record our names in the Book of Life.

from Minhagim, 1707

The repetitions of the Amidah in the morning services and musaf (additional) services also include extra prayers for Rosh Hashanah.  The musaf services add three sections of liturgy on Rosh Hashanah themes (Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofars), with quotations from the bible and shofar10 blowing for each section.  The section on Remembrance is called Zikhronot (זִכְרֺנוֹת), the plural of zikaron.  Its opening prayer includes:

And regarding regions, it is said on [this day] which [region] is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for starvation and which for satiation.  And regarding creatures, they are accounted for on [this day] to hazkir for life or for death.

hazkir (הַזְכִּיר) = prompt recollection.  (The hifil infinitive of the verb zakhar.)

Then the Zikhronot section mentions instances of God remembering characters in the bible and doing good things for them, most notably when God remembers Noah and makes the flood subside,11 and when God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and brings their descendants out of Egypt.12

The service leader’s repetition of the Amidah in the musaf service includes not only the three sections with shofar blowing described above, but also a dramatic recitation that begins:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

          how many will pass away and how many will be created;

          who will live and who will die,

          who will be cut off [before his time] and who will not;

          who by water and who by fire,

          who by the sword and who by the beast,

          who by hunger and who by thirst …

The list goes on until the declaration:  But turning around, prayer, and charity bypass the evil decree!

On Rosh Hashanah we may get into the Book of Life despite our earlier bad deeds, if we sincerely turn around. On Yom Kippur, nine days later, the Book of Life is sealed.


In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we plead with God to remember us, the heirs of the Israelites, and to grant us life because whatever our past faults, now we are turning around, praying, and doing good deeds.

But before we can beg God to remember us in the Book of Life, we must remember God.

My God, my soul is prostrate;

            Therefore ezkarekha.  (Psalm 42:7)

I say to God, my rock:

            Why have you forgotten me?  (Psalm 42:10)

ezkarekha (אֶזְכָּרְךָ) = I remember you.  (Another imperfect of the verb zakhar.)

When we feel alienated from our better selves, when we feel that we have not lived up to our own ideals, that we have missed the mark, then we feel alienated from God.  Some of us assume God will punish us, even decree an early death; others assume that our alienation is the punishment.

Either way, our personal task is the same as the communal task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:  to make amends with people we have wronged, and to pray for atonement with God.  When we remember God (and listen to the inner voice), God remembers us (and the inner voice speaks).  Then our lives improve.

Leshanah tovah tikateivu—May you all be inscribed for a good year!

  1. Leviticus 23:24 specifies the first day of the seventh month. The Hebrew calendar starts counting months in the spring, the first month being Nissan, from the Akkadian word for “first produce”.  But the agricultural year begins in the autumn, when fields are plowed and sown with winter wheat before the rain comes.  The first month of this year is Tishrei, from the Akkadian word for “beginning”.  This is also the time when the first temple is dedicated in 1 Kings 8:2.  (See Yael Avrahami, “Why Do We Eat Matzah in the Spring?”,
  2. Many Jewish holy days are observed for an extra day outside Israel. Rosh Hashanah is the only one that is observed for two days in Israel as well as in the rest of the world.
  3. g. Deuteronomy 8:19-20, 1 Samuel 12:9, Jeremiah 13:24-26, and Ezekiel 6:9.
  4. g. Psalms 42:7-10, 44:18-27, 77:2-12, and 143:1-7.)
  5. g. Exodus 2:24 and 6:5, Leviticus 26:42-45, Jeremiah 14:21, and Psalms 105:8-11 and 42-43, 106:44-5, and 111.
  6. 1 Samuel 1:10-20.
  7. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy was codified in the 9th century CE.
  8. The Ma-ariv service in the evening, the Shacharit service in the morning, and the Mincha service in the afternoon, corresponding to the three times for offerings at the altar in ancient Israel. When one of these services is prayed by a congregation, as on Shabbat and various holy days, the Amidah is traditionally prayed in an undertone first, then repeated out loud by the service leader (with the congregation chiming in).
  9. On Rosh Hashanah we pray the Amidah twice during each of the three evening services, twice during each of the two morning services, twice during each musaf (additional) service following the morning service, and twice during each afternoon service.
  10. A shofar (שׁוֹפָר) is a musical instrument made out of the horn of an animal, usually a ram. The tip of the horn is modified to serve as a mouthpiece.
  11. Genesis 8:1.
  12. Exodus 2:24 and Leviticus 26:45.

Ki Tissa & Psalms 109 & 69: Wiped Off the List

(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)

Gold calf from Byblos

Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?

Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)

And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)

Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt, 1659

The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.

“And now, if you will only lift their guilt!  But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses:  “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book.  Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.”  (Exodus 32:32-33)

mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)

emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too.  God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.

When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:

“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)

The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).

God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.

What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?

One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.

And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)

yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

Similarly, a name is erased from God’s book if God decrees that the man will pass out of collective memory—perhaps by his own early death, or perhaps by dying without heirs to carry on his lineage.


Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.

            May no one extend kindness to him;

                        And may no one be gracious to his orphans.

            May his posterity be cut off;

                        In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)

yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused.  Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:

            Place guilt upon their guilt,

                        and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.

            Yismachu from the book of life,

                        And among the righteous do not record them.  (Psalm 69:28-29)

yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)

This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.

The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E.  Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another.  People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.

What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2

But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E.,  says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.


The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.

Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death.  I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.

Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.

May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness.  And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.

1  The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).

2   Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.

3  Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.

Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.

Haftarat Simchat Torah—Joshua: Strong and Resolute

The standard cycle of Torah readings ends with Moses’ death in the last Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, Vezot Habrakhah. On the holy day of Simchat Torah, most Jewish congregations read this last portion in a Torah scroll, then roll the scroll all the way back and read the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. The accompanying haftarah (reading from the Prophets) is Joshua 1:1-18.

Have you ever tried to turn over a new leaf, and found that without a systematic process you soon slide back to your old ways?

One process for changing your life can be found in the Jewish holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. I realized this year that these days are a recipe for a 23-day period of transformation.

Blowing the Shofar, from Minhagim, 1707
Blowing the Shofar,
from Minhagim, 1707

1) On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”), we declare the beginning of a new year. And we wake up when we hear the blast of the shofar, a loud wind instrument made out of a ram’s horn.

2) On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), having apologized to the people we have wronged and forgiven those who wronged us, we go on to confess our errors to God and forgive ourselves.

3) During the seven days of Sukkot (“Huts”), we eat, sleep, and study (as much as the weather permits) in temporary shelters whose roofs of branches let in some rain and starlight.  The new lives we are creating for ourselves are like these sukkot: fragile, not secure—but open to nature, to other people, and to the presence of the divine.

Hoshana Rabbah, by Bernard Picart c. 1733
Hoshana Rabbah,
by Bernard Picart c. 1733

4) On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah (“Great Supplication”), we circle the sanctuary seven times while beating willow branches on the floor to symbolically disperse the last traces of the previous year’s misdeeds.

5) On Shemini Atzeret (“Eighth Gathering”), we pray for rain so that the new seeds we have planted will grow during the winter.

6) On Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing in Torah”), we read the end of the Torah scroll (the last portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim, called Vezot Habrakhah, “And this is the blessing”). Then we roll it back to the beginning and read about the creation of the world in Genesis/Bereishit. In this way we acknowledge the blessings of the old year, close the book on our past mistakes, and launch into creating our new life.

The haftarah for Simchat Torah is the beginning of the book of Joshua, right after Moses has died. Everything must change now. Joshua, who has spent 40 years as Moses’ attendant, must quickly become the de facto king of the Israelites. The Israelites, who have spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, complaining about the food, learning the rules of their new religion from Moses, and listening to the old folks’ stories about being slaves in Egypt, must now become first a conquering army, then a people who farm, trade, and live in towns—in the unfamiliar land of Canaan.

Moses Appoints Joshua, by Henry Northrop, 1894
Moses Appoints Joshua,
by Henry Northrop, 1894

Both Joshua and the Israelites are unprepared for their new lives.

Moses anticipates this toward the end of Deuteronomy. He legitimizes Joshua as his successor by laying hands on him, and God confirms it with a pillar of cloud. Then Moses tells the Israelites:

Chizku and imetzu! Do not be afraid and do not feel dread in front of them [the Canaanites], because God, your God, is going with you Itself. It will not let go of you and It will not forsake you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:6)

chizku (חִזְקוּ) = (plural) Hold strong! Hold on! Be fortified! Be stalwart! Be strong!

imetzu (אִמְצוּ) = (plural) Be resolute! Be firm! Be strong!

Then Moses called Joshua and said to him, in the sight of all Israel: Chazak and ematz, because you yourself shall bring this people to the land that God swore to their fathers to give to them, and you yourself shall apportion it among them. (Deuteronomy 31:7)

chazak (חֲזָק) = (singular of chizku) Hold strong! (etc.)

ematz (אֱמָץ) = (singular of imetzu) Be resolute! (etc.)

After Moses dies, Joshua may have felt like running run away, but he accepts his new life. The book of Joshua begins with God speaking to Joshua.

It happened after the death of Moses, the servant of God; God spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ attendant, saying: My servant Moses is dead. So now get up and cross this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the children of Israel. (Joshua 1:1-2)

Joshua says nothing, but I imagine him feeling fearful and doomed. He served as a general once, 40 years ago, when Amalek attacked the Israelites; but the untrained ex-slaves won the battle only when Moses raised his hands toward heaven. Joshua has never led a war of conquest or administered a country. When he was one of the scouts Moses sent to report on the land of Canaan, he could not even persuade anyone that the land was worth entering. How can he persuade the Israelites to cross the Jordan and enter it now? And how can he turn himself into a conqueror, judge, and administrator?

God tells him:

No one shall be able to stand against you, all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not let go of you and I will not forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)

I expect it would help to know that God was on your side.  When I embark on a new phase of my life, it helps to know that I am doing the right thing. But that knowledge by itself is not enough to make me step forward.

God continues:

Chazak and ematz, because you shall apportion among this people the land that I swore to their fathers to give to them. Only chazak and ematz very much to guard and do according to all the teaching that My servant Moses commanded to you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, so that you shall act with insight everywhere you go. … Did I not command you: chazak and ematz? You shall not be afraid and you shall not be dismayed, because God, your God, will be with you wherever you go.  (Joshua 1:6-7, 9)

Joshua proceeds to become the leader he never was before. He makes decisions based on the teachings of Moses, he conquers large parts of Canaan (with the help of two divine miracles), and he divides up the land among the tribes of Israel.

Chazak and ematz, he probably reminds himself; hold strong and be resolute! The Bible uses this particular pairing of words only at four times of major change: when Joshua replaces Moses as the leader of the Israelites (in Deuteronomy and Joshua), when Joshua encourages his officers to continue the conquest of Canaan (in Joshua), when Solomon replaces David as the king of Israel (in the first book of Chronicles), and when King Hezekiah encourages his people to defend Jerusalem against the Assyrians (in the second book of Chronicles).

In all four transitions, the people who were told to be resolute felt nervous and insecure. And all four times they succeeded in their new roles.


It takes a lot to turn over a new leaf, to embark on a new direction in your life. From the Jewish holy days at this time of year we learn to wake up, face what we did wrong, make amends, and let go; to live for a while in the insecure space of transition as we stay open to guidance and pray for growth; to acknowledge the blessings in our old lives before we begin creating our new lives; and, in this week’s haftarah, to proceed with an attitude that will keep us going on our new path. We must trust that we are doing God’s will or the right thing, and we must be determined to keep going regardless of anything frightening or discouraging along the way.

Chazak and ematz; hold strong and be resolute. Keep going.

Haftarot for Rosh Hashanah & Shabbat Shuvah—1 Samuel & Hosea:  From Smoke to Words

Almost every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). But the Torah portion this week is Vayeilekh (Deuteronomy/Devarim 31:1-30), and it is not assigned a haftarah of its own.

Nevertheless, this week is especially rich in haftarot (plural of “haftarah”) because it includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Shabbat Shuvah, the “Sabbath of Return” to God—all before we dive into Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”) next week.

The haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.  The reading for the second day is Jeremiah 31:2-20.  And the haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah this Saturday is Hosea 14:2-10. Perhaps it is no accident that during this time of intense prayer from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, two of these three haftarot show that praying with words is better than slaughtering an animal and burning it up into smoke for God.

Prayer is not a dialogue with God, although persons in the Hebrew Bible from Adam to the prophet Malachi do talk with God and hear God’s responses in words—in fact in complete sentences. Sometimes prophets report what God said; other passages are like conversations between two human beings of different rank and power.

first-temple-altarPrayer is more like smoke; it rises up toward God, but God does not answer in words.

Besides having many conversations with God, Moses also prays on behalf of the Israelites when they are traveling through the wilderness south of Edom, 40 years after their exodus from Egypt.  The Israelites complain again about their diet of manna, and God sends poisonous snakes.

Then the people came to Moses and they said: We did wrong when we spoke against God and against you. Hitpalleil to God so He will clear away from us the snakes!  Vayitpalleil, Moses, on behalf of the people. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:7)

Hitpalleil (הִתְפַּלֵּל) = Pray!  (Probably from the same root as pilleil  = reassess. Prayer may be asking for a reassessment from God.)

Vayitpalleil (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל) = And he prayed.

Here the Israelites confess their misdeed, but they do not believe they can pray to God directly, so they ask Moses, God’s prophet, to do it for them.

Temple altar
Temple altar

Smoke, not spoken prayer, is the primary way to worship God in the first seven books of the Bible. If you want to bring God your devotion, you slaughter an animal and burn up part or all of it on an altar, turning it into smoke. God appreciates the smell of the smoke.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra lays out five categories of offerings burned up into smoke, and each one was transformed into a type of prayer.

1) olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, to maintain the relationship between the worshiper and God. This became liturgy, written prayers to read, recite, or sing at specific times and occasions.

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering, to show homage or respect.  This corresponds to prayers of praise.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering, to thank God or to express devotion. This corresponds to prayers of thanksgiving.

4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, to fix an unintentional transgression against one of God’s laws; and 5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional wrong (after making amends with the human whom you wronged).  Instead of these two animal offerings, we have prayers of confession asking for God’s forgiveness.

(For more on these smoke offerings, see my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.)

A additional type of prayer in the Bible is the petitionary prayer, in which we ask God to do us a favor. This category includes intercessory prayer, in which a prophet or someone else who is known to be on speaking terms with God utters a petitionary prayer on behalf of a community.

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, any male head of a household can worship God by building an altar and turning an animal into smoke on it.  Gradually this right is restricted in the Hebrew Bible, until animal offerings can only be made at the temple in Jerusalem and under the supervision of priests. Meanwhile, the tradition of individual prayer expands until anyone can do it, and God will hear.

The first prayer in the Bible is an intercessory prayer.  King Avimelekh takes Sarah into his household thinking she is Abraham’s sister, not his wife.  God responds by afflicting the king and all his women with a disease.  Then in a dream, God tells Avimelekh: And now restore the wife to the husband, because he is a prophet vayitpalleil on your behalf, and you will live. But if you do no restoring, know that you will certainly die, you and all that are yours. (Genesis/Bereishit 20:7)

After the king gives Avraham his wife Sarah along with some gifts, Avraham does pray, and God removes the disease.

Intercessory prayers continue to be mentioned in the Bible, including Moses’ prayer regarding the poisonous snakes.  But not until the first book of Samuel, in the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, does someone who has never conversed with God pray for her own sake. On her own initiative, Channah, who has been childless for many years, walks up to the doorway of the temple in Shiloh and prays for a son.

Channah praying from etching by Marc Chagall
Channah praying
from etching by
Marc Chagall

And she was bitter of spirit, vatitpalleil to God, and she wept continually. And she vowed a vow, and she said: God of Armies, if You really see the wretchedness of Your maidservant and You remember me and do not forget Your maidservant, and You give to Your maidservant a seed of men, then I will give him to God for all the days of his life…  (1 Samuel 1:10-11)

vatitpalleil (וַתִּתְפַּלֵּל) = and she prayed.

God does not answer Channah in words, but she does have a son (a “seed of men”), and she brings him to the temple in Shiloh once he is weaned. There she and her husband sacrifice a bull, following the established ritual, then give him to the priest so the boy can serve as an attendant at the temple. (Channah’s son, Samuel (Shmu-eil), later becomes a prophet and a judge of Israel.)

…and they bowed down there to God.  Vatitpalleil, Channah, and she said:

            My heart rejoices in God…

            There is no holy one like God,

            Because there are none except for You. (1 Samuel 2:1-2)

Channah continues with a long psalm praising God’s power. This time her prayer is not petitionary, but a prayer of praise, like a minchah offering.

This Saturday, on Shabbat Shuvah, we read in the book of Hosea:

            Shuvah, Israel, all the way to God, your god,

            For you have stumbled, through your wrongdoing.

            Take devarim with you

            And shuvu to God.

            Say to [God]:

            May You forgive all wrongdoing

            And take the good.

            And we will make amends of the bulls

            Of our lips.  (Hosea 14:2-3)

Shuvah (שׁוּבָה) = Return! (singular, addressing Israel)

shuvu (שׁוּבוּ) =  Return! (plural, addressing the people)

devarim (דְּבָרִים) = words; events, affairs.

Hosea asks the Israelites to make amends and return to God not by slaughtering bulls and burning them on an altar for God, but through the words of their lips, praying for God to forgive them. Instead of the smoke from a chataat or an asham offering, God wants people to return and atone with spoken prayer.


As we approach Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the haftarah from 1 Samuel reminds us of the power of individual heartfelt prayer, and the haftarah from Hosea reminds us to return—shuvah!—to God through prayer.

A priest cuts the animal’s throat, blood gushes, smoke roils up into the sky—that kind of worship was sure to have an emotional impact.  But even if someone brought the animal for an asham offering to atone for his own misdeed, or even if the high priest was killing the goat for God on Yom Kippur, people watched the show from a distance.

Channah worked harder, pulling out her own words to plead with God.  Hosea asks us to work harder, bringing our own personal words of confession to God, and returning to the holy one by praying for forgiveness.

It is possible to mouth formulaic prayers without thinking about them. But I believe it is better for our souls if we plumb our own depths, find our own words to bring to God, and do the work.