Where Does The Toast, "L'Chaim!" Come From?
Among the myriad
traditions that are ingrained in a Jew is the saying of "l'chaim" when
drinking wine or other intoxicating beverage with a fellow Jew. As we
all know, this blessing of "l'chaim" which translates as "to life" is a
blessing that one Jew gives his friend when drinking. The question is,
why has sharing a schnops with a fellow Jew become an opportune time
for blessing and where did this tradition come from?
It's very interesting that the various seforim or
torah books that discuss this custom bring several sources for it.
However, there is one explanation that has its source in the Gemara
that is universally sited. Rabbi Akiva made a feast for his son and
served wine. On each cup of wine that he brought to the table he said,
"Wine and life unto the mouths of the sages and unto the mouths of
their disciples." The Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edels
(1555-1631C.E.) explains that Rabbi Akiva was blessing the rabbis that
they should drink the correct amount. Wine was created to gladden the
heart and when drunk in the appropriate quantity, it will do just
that. However, when too much is drunk, it becomes harmful. Thus,
Rabbi Akiva was blessing the rabbis that they should drink just the
proper amount to lighten their hearts but not so much as to damage
themselves. Therefore, when we bless each other with "l'chaim", this is
what we, too, are doing. We are blessing each other that we
should drink the proper amount which will bring joy to our hearts, not
more and not less.
The Gemara in Eruvin is the basis for another
explanation of this custom. The Gemara quotes Rabbi Chanina as saying,
"Wine was only created to console mourners and to bring retribution for
the wicked." This is based on a verse in Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs,
that states, "Give intoxicating drink to those destined to perish, and
wine to the bitter souls." Since wine is given to mourners, we
therefore bless each other that the wine we are drinking should be for
"l'chaim", life, and not for mourning.
A third explanation of this custom has its basis in
the first time wine is mentioned in the Torah. Noach had planted a
vineyard, made wine from the grapes and became intoxicated. His son,
Cham, and grandson, Canaan, mistreated Noach when he was incapacitated
and when he awoke from his drunkenness, he cursed Cham's son Canaan.
Since a curse and damage was brought into the world through wine, we,
therefore, designate with our blessing that this drinking should be for
life and not for harm.
In light of the above discussion, we see that there
is a common dominator for each of these explanations. Wine has a
unique characteristic that enables it to cause intoxication. That
characteristic can be used in a productive way or in a harmful way.
According to each of these explanations, when we make this blessing, we
are expressing the hope that the wine should only be used for a good,
productive and healthy life. L'chaim!
Rabbi Eliezer Kessler