September 22, 2017

On Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life, and the Rastafarian connection


A Uruguayan Rosh Hashanah card from the thirties.

Today marks the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year festival. If you’re celebrating — go crazy! If you’re not, but want to wish your Jewish friends well (sidenote: it is a good time to check in with your Jewish friends), you may be advised to offer any of several greetings. For starters, “Happy new year!” is a totally sweet and appropriate thing to say, as is the phrase’s Hebrew equivalent, “Shanah tovah” (which sometimes comes with an added “umetukah,” “and a sweet one,” at the end). There are also various greetings in Yiddish and Ladino—two of the main languages of Jewish diaspora—and other vernacular languages. For an advanced move—one you should not try unless you can get your mouth around a few words of Hebrew and can patiently endure intrusions of the supernatural—you can also say, as many Orthodox Jews do to one another, “Ketivah vakhatimah tovah,” which wishes the addressee “a good writing and signing.”

The phrase refers to the belief that God begins each year by opening the Book of Life—a kind of cosmic ledger that tracks all of human conduct—and inscribing each person’s fate by name. Which, sure — seems good to have a system. This “Book of Life” is mentioned a couple times in the Bible, but never really explained. In Exodus, after the Golden Calf debacleMoses quickly kills 3,000 of the instigators (as you do), and then ascends Mount Sinai to apologize to God, who responds, “Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.” To pick another example, Psalm 69 is largely a diss track, in which the speaker calls out enemies (“They put poison into my food; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”), at one point urging, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous.”

The idea seems to have been borrowed from Mesopotamia, home to an older and more advanced civilization that had a massive impact on the people who wrote the Bible. Mesopotamian myths had long described a “tablet of destinies,” a kind of cosmological ledger that gave its owner power over all of fate. A common creation story described a celestial war to wrest the tablet from Tiamat, the monstrous goddess of salt water. She’s eventually slain, her body used to fashion the sky, earth, and cosmos.

No strangers to bureaucracy, Mesopotamians appear to have extrapolated the idea of the tablet from the everyday ledgers they used to keep records of all kinds of things. (It’s probably to this kind of record that the prophet Ezekiel refers when he writes that “prophets that see vanity… shall [not] be written in the register of the house of Israel.”)

The influence of Mesopotamia is all over Jewish scripture. The Bible describes Abraham, legendary patriarch of the “Abrahamic religions”—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.—as a migrant from a Mesopotamian city called Ur, which was the name of a major settlement what is now Iraq. In Genesis 1:2, where, before creation, “darkness was on the face of the deep,” many have speculated that the Hebrew word for “the deep,” “tihom,” is connected, as kin or side-eyeing pun, to “Tiamat.” The month that Rosh Hashanah begins is known in Jewish tradition not by its original Hebrew name (once upon a time it was called “Etanim,”) but as “Tishrei,” its name in the Mespotamian language of Akkadian (in which it’s derived from the verb šurrû, “to begin”). A Mesopotamian origin for the “Book of Life” seems plausible.

And while we’re dealing in etymologies and cross-cultural traffic, one more interesting nugget. The name “Rosh Hashanah” means “start of the year” — rosh is literally “head,” ha- is the definite article, and shanah means “year.” As the phrase “Rosh Hashanah” suggests, Semitic languages like Ancient Hebrew use “head” in a number of figurative senses, to describe various kinds of firstness. In Amharic, the Semitic language of Ethiopia’s long-ruling Amhara minority, a related word, ras, also means “head,” and, by extension, doubles as a feudal title from Ethiopia’s robustly stratified imperial society. (Not too different from the English word “prince,” which comes from the Latin princeps, “first citizen,” after the more recognizable primus, “first.”) Probably the most famous ras was Ras Tafari Makonnen—better known by the name he assumed in 1930 when he became emperor, Haile Selassie—who would, against his own devoutly Christian will, become the center of a new religion. What I’m saying is, yes, the “Rosh” in “Rosh Hashanah” is a cousin to the “Ras-” in “Rastafarianism.”

Happy new year, everyone! Together, we can defeat the monster, seize the book, and make the world. And it’s nice, whatever our perspectives on transcendence, to have a day to think about it.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.