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!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • 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.