May You Be Inscribed in the Book of Life for 5774

And, By the Way, What Book Might That Be?

People of the Book: In 1935, artist Nicholas Roerich offered his vision of the ‘Book of Life.’
Wikimedia Commons
People of the Book: In 1935, artist Nicholas Roerich offered his vision of the ‘Book of Life.’

By Philologos

Published September 08, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Kotvenu b’sefer he-ḥayyim, “Inscribe us in the Book of Life,” Jews pray in the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. “May you be written down and inscribed for a good year,” they say to each other. No concept or phrase is more associated with the High Holy Days than that of a divine “book” in which our fates are written. But where does this come from? What are its origins in Jewish tradition?

They’re very old. We first encounter them in the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. In his rage at the Israelites’ reversion to idolatry while he has been in seclusion on Mount Sinai, Moses has the statue of the calf made by them ground to dust, and he orders a massacre of its worshippers. Yet having done all this, he beseeches God to forgive Israel’s sin and requests that if He doesn’t, He should “erase me, I pray, from Your book that You have written.”

What book is this? The Bible hasn’t mentioned it before. Does God keep some sort of ledger or log in which He records men’s deeds? Why, then, haven’t we heard of it until now?

Actually, the Israelites of Moses’ age probably had heard of it, because the motif of such a book was part of the shared religious culture of the ancient Middle East. Thus, in the Babylonian-Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu has a vision in which he sees Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Kneeling before her is her secretary, Beletseri, the Underworld’s official scribe, “reading aloud from a tablet in her hands.” From other Babylonian sources, we know that this “tablet” (Babylonian documents, as I observed in a recent column, were incised with a stylus on a slab of wet clay and baked for preservation) was a record of the lives of new arrivals in the Underworld whose fate Ereshkigal had to decide. The Babylonians’ word for such a tablet was egertu, a cognate of the Hebrew igeret, which denotes a scroll or scroll-like letter. (Important Hebrew documents, unlike Babylonian ones, were generally written with ink on parchment that was rolled into a cylinder and sealed. If the igeret was long enough, it was called a sefer, a book.)

BelEtseri reports to Ereshkigal on the lives of the newly dead, but in other ancient Middle Eastern texts there is mention of divine dossiers being kept on lives still in progress. In the excavated archives of the powerful Sumerian king Rim-Sin of Larsa, to take one example, there is a letter wishing him a long and happy reign guaranteed by the gods in the “book of life [im-ma-til-la].” Rim-Sin was a contemporary of the Babylonian king Hammurabi and lived early in the second millennium BCE, 500 or so years before Moses.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.