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Book of Life

BOOK OF LIFE, or perhaps more correctly BOOK OF THE LIVING (Heb. סֵפֶר חַיִּים, Sefer Ḥayyim), a heavenly book in which the names of the righteous are inscribed. The expression "Book of Life" appears only once in the Bible, in Psalms 69: 29 (28), "Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous," but a close parallel is found in Isaiah 4:3, which speaks of a list of those destined (literally "written") for life in Jerusalem. The erasure of a sinner's name from such a register is equivalent to death (cf. Ps. 69: 29, and the plea of Moses, Ex. 32:32–33).

The belief in the existence of heavenly ledgers is alluded to several times in the Bible (Isa. 65:6; Jer. 17:1; 22:30; Mal. 3:16; Ps. 40:8; 87:6; 139:16; Job 13:26; Dan. 7:10; 12:1; Neh. 13:14 (?) – the exact meaning of some of these texts, along with I Samuel 25:29, however, is still in doubt), the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (e.g., Jub. 30: 19–23; I En. 47:3; 81:1ff.; 97:6; 98:7ff.; 103:2; 104:7; 108:3, 7; I Bar. 24:1), and the New Testament (e.g., Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23). This belief can be traced to Mesopotamia, where the gods were believed to possess tablets recording the deeds and destiny of men. Examples are the prayer of Ashurbanipal to Nabû, the divine scribe, "My life is inscribed before thee," and of Shamash-Shum-ukîn, "May [Nabû] inscribe the days of his life for long duration on a tablet." The exact equivalent of the Hebrew Sefer Ḥayyim is found in a tablet from the neo-Assyrian period and may also be present in a Sumerian hymn.

[Shalom M. Paul]

In the Mishnah (Avot 3:17), R. Akiva speaks in detailed terms of the heavenly ledger in which all man's actions are written down until the inevitable day of reckoning comes. On the basis of the above-mentioned reference to the Book of Life in Psalms, however, or, according to another amora, of the plea of Moses, the Talmud states "three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Ha-Shanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, while the fate of the intermediate is suspended until the Day of Atonement" (RH 16b).

This passage has greatly influenced the whole conception of the High Holidays and finds its expression in the liturgy and piyyutim of those days. Of the four special insertions in the *Amidah for the *Ten Days of Penitence , three of them are prayers for "Inscription in the Book of Life" and it is the basis of the moving prayer U-Netanneh Tokef.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]


Schrader, Keilinschr, 2 (19033), 400–6, E. Behrens (ed.), Assyrisch-Babylonische Briefe kultischen Inhalts aus der Sargonidenzeit (1906), 43; A. Jeremias, Babylonisches im Neuen Testament (1905), 69–73; T.H. Gaster, Thespis (19612), 288–9; R.F. Harper, Assyrian and Babylonian Letters, 6 (1902), let. 545, lines 9–10 (Eng. trans. in L. Waterman, Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire, 1 (1930), 386–7); O. Eissfeldt, Der Beutel der Lebendigen (1960); N.H. Tur-Sinai, Peshuto shel Mikra, 2 (1965), 180. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: S. Paul, in: JANES, 5 (=Gaster Festschrift; 1973), 345–53.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.