What is the Book of Life?

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote, “Our days are scrolls. Write on them what you wish to be remembered.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?


A Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

Shana Tova
Shana Tova, by Jen T.

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!

What is Yizkor?

If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Yom Kippur, the Hangover?

"The Hangover" (Portrait of Suzanne ...
“The Hangover” (Portrait of Suzanne Valadon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I get some interesting and very thought-provoking responses to this blog over on twitter. (If you want to follow me there, I’m @CoffeeShopRabbi.)

I put up a very serious little post earlier today suggesting that we reflect upon yesterday’s insights.  Almost immediately, I got a response from a follower who reported feeling “lost and empty right now.” I think that’s a not-unusual response to a period of intense reflection when we rummage around in our souls and mess with the routines of our bodies. I’ve always thought if it as liturgical indigestion, but this morning I’m wondering if it isn’t more like a hangover.

There’s tremendous wisdom in the arrangement of the Jewish calendar.  As @travelincatdoc tweeted when I mentioned that I was looking forward to Sukkot: “Succos: when G-d tells us to go outside and play, and reminds us everything we need is in the sukkah.”

We’ve been in the shul for long enough: go outside and play. Build a sukkah, help someone build a sukkah, or just take a hike. Breathe fresh air. Let all those insights of the last six weeks rest on the back burner of your soul for a while and really live in your body. Judaism teaches us that our bodies are good, and that we should take care of them. Sitting on one’s tuchis for too long is bad for both body and soul.

I’m headed outdoors. Join me?


p.s. If you noticed the difference in spelling Sukkot/Succos and it worries you, read this little article. 

After Yom Kippur… What?

Cursive Calendar
Photo credit: Your Secret Admiral

So here I am, the day after Yom Kippur, a little discombobulated and perhaps a little overwhelmed. What now?

BACK TO ROUTINE? Shall I just go back to my routine unchanged? Having made my “Day of Atonement” will I go back to my old ways, my old priorities, or has something shifted within me? There is always that option, but then the cycle of the year will be merely a wheel that goes around, every year the same, the years grinding away until I am gone. I want more than that, don’t I?

WHAT HAS CHANGED? I will stop for a moment today and think about the insights of the Days of Awe. What were the resolutions I made? What mistakes did I correct? Did I make specific plans for change? How shall I implement those plans? Is there anyone or anything I see differently today than I did a month ago?

RELATIONSHIPS What relationships did I mend in the past month or so? Now, going forward, how am I going to nurture those relationships? Did I resolve to spend more time with someone, or to spend less time with something? What’s my plan? Have I put anything on my calendar?

I have the power to make changes in my behavior. Now it is up to me.

What’s my plan?

Yom Kippur 5774

Golden Gate Bridge
Golden Gate Bridge (Photo credit: Frank Kehren)

R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah

9 Things to Know about Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.

  • Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
  • Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
  • Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
  • The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
  • Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
  • Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
  • We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
  • Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.

To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.