Word of the Day / Hatimah: Signed, Sealed and Delivered...in the Book of Life

This word unites celebrities, monarchs and army recruits who don't like to shave.

In the days between Rosh Hashanah, which ended Saturday night, and Yom Kippur, which takes place this Saturday, many religious Jews wish each other a gmar hatimah tovah. This translates roughly into "May you be sealed in the book of life," but more literally expresses a wish for a "good final sealing."

This blessing is based on the idea that God inscribes each person's fate on Rosh Hashanah and seals it on Yom Kippur. Before Rosh Hashanah, the phrase being bandied about usually takes the form ketivah vehatimah tovah, reflecting the hope that people are inscribed and sealed in God's good books. But between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the assumption is that God has already made his lists but has yet to check them twice.

Just as this form of hatimah refers to sealing or finalizing something, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi is considered the hotem of the Mishna: the scholar who compiled and edited – in other words, who finalized – this 63-tractate part of the Oral Law. The hatimah of the Mishna is its completion.

A hatimah is also a signature, the meaning that comes up most frequently in day-to-day usage. When being asked for your John Hancock, you'll be told lahtom (to sign) on the dotted line; the signature in your email is also known as a hatima, as is the autograph of a celebrity.

Hotemet comes from the same root and means "seal," like the kind monarchs used to authenticate documents, as well as "rubber stamp."

Then there's the far less prevalent hatimat zakan, which can refer to early beard (zakan)growth, as in the Talmud's explanation of why Joseph recognized his brothers when he encountered them in Egypt but they didn't recognize him: Joseph did not have hatimat zakan when his brothers sold him to a passing merchant caravan but he did have hatimat zakan when he saw them again (Bava Metiza 39b).

Nowadays, hatimat zakan relates to Israeli men who either want to keep their existing beards while serving in the army or just want to get away without shaving every day. A Q&A on hatimat zakan by Army.co.il, a website maintained by an Israeli law firm that represents soldiers in disciplinary and criminal proceedings, features a questioner asking whether the recruit needs to show up with the beard already in place or can start growing it at will. The answer provided by an anonymous respondent: Your best bet is to have a beard when you get the photo for your army ID taken. The other kind of hatimah also plays a role here, since a superior officer needs to sign off on that beard, especially if it's not being grown for religious or health reasons.

Israeli actor Yehuda Levi, who recently made the local news because of his breakup with the singer and actress Ninet Tayeb, played a starring role in a 2008 Ynet article called "Hatimat zakan." According to that piece, Levi's abundant facial hair did not stop his fans from recognizing him and demanding his hatimah. No word on whether those fans were angling for a good autograph (hatimah tovah) or just wishing him a year on God's good side.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

AP