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.
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
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!
- 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”.
- Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b.
- 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.
- Unetaneh Tokef (וּנְתַנֶּה תֺּקֶף) = And now we give (an account of) the power (of God) … (These words introduce the subsequent prayer.)
- Year 5783 in the Hebrew calendar began at sunset on September 25, 2022.