Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 26 June 2004 / 7 Tammuz 5764

Raising the Glass - L'Chaim

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Sam in Portland

Dear Rabbi,

When Jews drink alcohol together, especially wine, they say lchaim (to life). What is the source of the custom to say lchaim? Thank you.

Dear Sam,

Despite the spiritually elevating potential of wine (or perhaps because of this great potential) Mankind hasnt fared well with the vine.

According to one opinion in our sources, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the grape vine (none of our sources, by the way, consider the forbidden fruit an apple). Mortality, therefore, was brought upon Adam, Eve and all humanity through the vine.

Not only immortality, but also immorality, passed through the grape vine: And [Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tentAnd Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. [Our sages assert that Cham abused and/or castrated his father, Rashi]. And Noah said, Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren " (Gen. 9:21-24).

Lot similarly suffered wines blush through his own seed: "Our father is old, and there is no man on earth to come upon us, as is the custom of all the earth. Come, let us give our father wine to drink, and let us lie with himAnd Lot's two daughters conceived from their fatherAnd the elder bore a son, and she named him Moab [from father]and the younger also bore a son, and she named him Ben-ami [from my people] (Gen 19:31-38).

No less licentious is an account of the first recorded toast given at a Saxony feast in the year 450. British King Vortigern was so moved by the simple sentiment, "Lord King, be of health," offered by Rowena, daughter of the Saxony leader Hengist, that he proceeded to seduce her. Intoxicated by drink, lust and greed, he then bargained with her father Hengist for her hand.

In truth, this was not the first toast. A distinctly Jewish toast far preceded it in time and exceeded it quality. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva (15-135 C.E.) blessed the guests at his sons wedding with the toast, Wine and Life to the mouths of the rabbis and to the mouths of their students! On a purely simple level, this is a beautiful toast. However, it has a deeper meaning as well. The numerical value of the Hebrew word for wine is the same as that for secret, and Life is interchangeable with Torah. Rabbi Akiva toasted that the mouths of the sages should always be full with both revealed and esoteric Torah.

Also, the Talmud teaches, when wine goes in, secrets come out. On one level, one who is drunk loses control and whats revealed may not always be pleasant or appropriate. However, our Sages refer to a certain state of inebriation as being perfumed, or pleasantly scented, whereby one doesnt lose control but rather sheds the restrictions of normal consciousness, enabling him to experience, reveal and express pleasant and profound spiritual concepts. According to whether ones inner being is pure and holy or impure and unholy, wine literally brings out the best or the worst in a person. It is our desire for the spiritually best that we toast lchaim.

Its worth noting that the Jewish custom is to merely raise the glasses, but not to clink them together, unlike the non-Jews who believed the sound of the clinking glass warded off evil spirits. Also, because in Judaism wine symbolizes bounty, blessing and joy, many have the custom of saying lchaim only after making the appropriate blessing over the wine and drinking a bit, so that the toast of lchaim should be infused with the holiness and blessing of G-ds name and the inherent joy and bounty of the wine.

Ill conclude with a beautiful idea I recently heard: Although "l'chaim" is usually translated to life, it is plural and literally means "to lives". This expresses the idea that no one can live life alone. We all need someone else. There's no point in toasting to life alone, because life that is not shared is unlivable. Rather we toast to lives in which we share with others what is truly meaningful in life.

Sources:

  • Ta'amei HaMinhagim 291-293
  • Sanhedrin 70a
  • Shabbat 67a
  • Eruvin 65a, Megilla 7

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