“May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life” is a common greeting during the ten day Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur season.
From the time of Moses onward, the roll call of the redeemed has been closely linked with atonement (reconciliation with other humans and with God). The Record Book of Life’s Deeds is fixed and shown to every person when his or her life is judged in the hereafter. But while we are still alive we can change what is written in the Record Book of Life’s Deeds.
While the Book of Life records mankind’s deeds: “Know what is above you—a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and your deeds written in a book.” (Avot 2.1) the Sayings of the Fathers also compares life to a store with an open ledger of credit and debit.
Thus, good deeds can cancel offset bad deeds or vice versa. As Rabbi Simeon Ben Yohai put it, “Even if one is perfectly righteous all of his life, but rebels at the end, he offsets his former good deeds, as it is said, ‘…The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression…’ (Ezekiel 33:12.)
And even if one is wicked all his life, but repents and atones towards the end, his wickedness is offset, as it is said, ‘…and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it, from the day when he turns [away] from his wickedness… (Ezekiel 33:12.).’” (Talmud Kiddushin 40a–b.)
The record book image of all of ones deeds referred to above is first found in the Biblical Prophet Malachi: “Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before each one of those who revered the Lord and thought about His name.” (3:16)
One of the most popular interpretations of the Jewish rabbinic view of judgment and forgiveness is found in Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked, and (the biggest) one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed in the Book of Life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed in the book of death; and the intermediates are examined from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for another year of life; if unworthy, they are inscribed for death in the coming year.”
Jewish prayers also mention the Sefer Hayyim: the Book of Life’s Deeds; with a prayer said daily from Rosh Hashanah, the New Year until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It reads, “Remember us unto life, O King who delights in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Your own sake, O God of life.”
Another prayer, U-Netanneh Tokef, a most poignant and stirring liturgical piece, describes what the Day of Judgment will be like: “Let us declare the mighty holiness of the day, for it is solemn and awesome.” The prayer acknowledges, “True it is that you judge and give reproof, discern and witness, record and seal, recount and measure.”
The prayer then concludes with three ways to positively influence the judgment. Teshuvah is one. Usually translated “repentance,” it means changing ones behavior, or reversing course i.e. “returning.” One is not to become a reborn person, but to return to the “goodness” inherent in every human soul, according to [both Islamic and] Jewish understanding.
Tefillah is the second way to making things right. Usually translated as “prayer” it connotes “re-attaching oneself” to God.
Tzedakah, the third route to atonement, comes from the Hebrew word meaning “justice,” and “charity.” Justice demands that every person, even the poor, give to others.
According to rabbinic thought, it is these three: Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, that help one add a positive inscription in the Book of Life. In Talmud Hagigah 27a we read, “At the time when the Temple stood, the altar brought atonement for a person; now a person’s table brings atonement for him (through hospitality for poor guests).”
So, without Temple sacrifice for our sins, Jews can rely on acts of charity and good deeds to gain entries into God’s Book of Life.
Moses, when he pleaded with God after the children of Israel committed the sin of the golden calf, cried out: “Alas, this people has committed a great sin; they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin; and if not, please blot me out from your book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:31–32.)
And God’s response to Moses’ plea for the children of Israel was “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot out of My book.” (Exodus 32:33) unless they change their way of life.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is first mentioned in the book of Leviticus. It is a solemn day, accented by fasting and praying to God for forgiveness of the sins committed against other people and against Him.
For each person who repents and atones, God will inscribe those people into the Book of Life. With the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood disbanded, and animal sacrifices ended, the rabbis taught that: “Repentance and works of charity are man’s intercessors before God’s throne.” (Talmud Shabbat 32a.) and “Sincere repentance is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all sacrifices.” (Leviticus Rabba 7.; Talmud Sanhedrin 43b.)
Similar views are taught in the Quran: “And those who believe and do righteous deeds – We will surely remove from them their misdeeds, and will surely reward them according to the best of what they used to do” (29:7)
And “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)
Even the image of the Book of Deeds is found in the Qur’an. “With Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them except Him. He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darknesses of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that it is [written] in a clear record. (6:59)
“And the record [of deeds] will be placed [open], and you will see the criminals fearful of that within it, and they will say, “Oh, woe to us! What is this book that leaves nothing small or great except that it has enumerated it?” And they will find what they did present [before them]. For your Lord does injustice to no one.” (Qur’an 18:49)