In Eastern Europe, between Yom Kippur and the seventh day of Sukkot, our forebears would greet others with "a gut kvittel," wishing them another chance for God to forgive any errors and inscribe them in the Book of Life.
Once, two friends, Yankel and Yussel, got into a heated argument over a calf, each claiming ownership. The argument led to bitterness and a stony silence.
One morning Yankel answered a knock on the door and saw a young man standing there with his box of tools. “I am Simchah the Handyman. Do any job in return for a meal.”
Yankel fed him and said, “I do have a job for you. See that ditch running alongside my property. It divides my land from my neighbor’s. After an argument he had that ditch dug and filled with water. Build me a fence so high I won’t have to see that codger.”
Simchah worked fast, and by sunset had finished the job.
But there was no fence. Instead, there was a bridge going from one side of the ditch to the other. At that moment, Yussel came over the bridge with his hand outstretched. “Yankel, you are a good friend. How did you think of building a bridge? And by the way, the calf is yours after all.”
The two men hugged and became friends again. Yankel looked for Simchah, but he had walked away. Yankel called out, “Hey, young man, I have more work for you!” Simchah shouted back, “I sure would like to stay, but I have more bridges to build.”
The powerful message in this story is about forgiveness and reconciliation. The English poet George Herbert, who lived from 1593-1633, wrote: “He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.” The bridge built in this story allows for Yussel to walk over it, apologize to Yankel and make amends.
From the end of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. the customary greeting is g’mar chatimah tovah with the meaning: “May God seal you in the Book of Life.” In Eastern Europe, between Yom Kippur and the seventh day of Sukkot, our forebears would greet others with the phrase: a gut kvittel.
What is a kvittel? It comes from the practice of bookkeepers, who, rather than make erasures in their ledgers when an error was found, would instead take a small slip of paper, paste it over the error and write the correct entry on the paper. Only an edge of the slip was pasted to the ledger so that one could examine the error underneath it to see that it was truly an error. This little piece of paper was called a kvittel, the same word for the note stuffed into the crevices between the stones on the Western Wall.
We are familiar with the metaphor of God sealing our fate on Yom Kippur. Another belief is that God can change God’s mind until the seventh day of Sukkot. Hence we have the greeting a gut kvittel — wishing one another yet another chance. We pray that God will change God’s mind and stick a small kvittel over our individual error and revise for the better what had been sealed on Yom Kippur.
So, between Yom Kippur and the seventh day of Sukkot, God is willing to review our actions. If we have made an error and are willing to make amends, then God takes a little piece of paper, a kvittel, and pastes it over our error. Thus, a gut kvittel means: Review what you have done and correct any error you have made, and God will paste a slip of paper over it, write the correction, and seal you in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: [email protected]