The Case of the Headless Man and Insufficient Repentance

Learn about a Kabbalistic tradition that will tell you if you have been sealed in the Book of Life or Death following the High Holy Days.

Chen Malul
This woodcut appears in the book "Customs" ("Minhagim"), published in Amsterdam in 1661 by Uri Weibash

In 1661 a book of Jewish customs was published in Amsterdam. It was originally written in Hebrew, but, being a book of Ashkenazi traditions and customs, it was translated into Yiddish. The book contains woodcuts of Jewish practices as described by the 14th century Austrian Rabbi, Yitzhak Ternau, who provides an overview of the traditions of Ashkenazi Jews including the rituals of the High Holy Days and the festival of Sukkot.

One woodcut shows a man building his sukkah, the traditional hut built by Jews in celebration of the festival.

Building a sukkah

In another image, two Jews are seen examining arba’at ha’minim, “The Four Species” used in the Sukkot prayer services.

Carrying the plenty

The third woodcut depicts the custom of throwing fruit for children to pick up during Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that immediately follows Sukkot and which celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah.

Giving fruit to children

But of all the woodcuts in the collection, it was the fourth one that truly caught our attention. Why you may ask? Well, perhaps because it is simply so… eye-catching. The woodcut features two men holding one of the four species. One of them is inexplicably headless!

In our attempts to solve this mystery, we asked ourselves and everyone around us if they know why one figure had a head and the other seemed to have lost his?

The picture that piqued our curiosity.

For some, the image was bizarre and jarring but the National Library experts who came to our aid were surprised people weren’t aware of this common Kabbalistic practice.

Here is some of what we learned:

A discussion of common Sukkot practices


As per Kabbalistic tradition, on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot and just one week after Yom Kippur, a devout Jew may find himself wondering, “Have I been sealed into the Book of Life or rather the Book of Death?”

What is a devout Jew full of uncertainty to do in such a scenario? An ancient Kabbalistic custom which can be found among the writing of Nachmanides from the 13th century offers a solution.

On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, one should step outside and examine the shadow they cast by the light of the moon. If the shadow that is cast is that of a whole person, then the believer should have no qualms, for he has been sealed in the Book of Life. If the shadow appears to be headless, the devout Jew should begin getting his affairs in order.

17th century Yiddish that reads, “He struck with the willow for he has no head.”

This custom seems to raise more questions than it answers. After all, according to age-old tradition, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day when those of Jewish faith are judged and sealed into the Book of Life or Death by God. Kabbalistic tradition explains that, though we are judged on Yom Kippur, the verdict is only signed on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, and in this window of time it is said that we can catch a glimpse of what the final verdict will be.


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