My friend and I were having a little argument the other night. I lifted my glass of choice and wished him “l’chaim,” which, I explained, is a special Jewish toast that means “to life.” He said that there’s nothing unique about that kind of toast, and that many cultures—ranging from Armenians to native New Zealanders—say the same thing in their respective languages.

So I ask you, dear rabbi, why do we say “l’chaim”? Is there a uniquely Jewish reason for this custom?

Reply

You guys touched on a point of contention that is over 2,000 years old. Back then, people would toast to “wine and life to the mouths of the rabbis.” Some felt that this was a forbidden, pagan superstition, but the Talmud countered this opinion by quoting a Tosefta1 that permits this toast. The Talmud also cited the precedent of Rabbi Akiva, who said this formula over every cup at his son’s wedding feast.2

So we know that toasting “to life” is (at least) 2,000 years old and is considered a Jewish custom.

But why? What is so Jewish about it?

There are a number of reasons given for toasting “to life” (or perhaps “for life” is a better translation of “l’chaim”).

Bad Stuff Happened When Wine Was Drunk

According to one opinion, the Tree of Knowledge was actually a grapevine.3 Accordingly, Adam and Eve’s imbibing of grapes (or perhaps wine) brought death into the world.

But it gets worse. After surviving the Great Flood, Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk, and you can read the disaster that followed in chapter 9 of Genesis.

Then, in chapter 19, we read about Lot, whose daughters made him drunk and caused him to sin with them.

Since alcohol consumption can easily lead to negative consequences, we express the wish that this drinking of wine be “to life.”4 Some even have the custom of spelling this wish out explicitly by toasting l'chaim tovim ul'shalom,” "for good life, and for peace.”5

To Life or Not to Life . . .

The Midrash brings another fascinating explanation:

After the judges of the Jewish court would deliberate on capital cases, they would turn one last time to those whom they sent to question the witnesses and ask for their opinion: “Savri meranan,” “Attention, gentleman . . .” If they opined that the plaintiff should live, they would reply, “L’chaim,” ”To life.” If, however, it was death, they would reply, “L’mitah,” “To death.” If the judges found the defendant guilty, he would be given very strong wine in order to diminish the pain of the execution.6

And so, when we drink our wine, we wish that it be “to life,” unlike the strong wine drunk by the person about to be executed.7

A Chassidic Approach

When hearing people toast “l’chaim,” Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch used to respond, “L'chaim v’l’vracha,” “To life and to blessing.” Once at a chassidic gathering, his disciple, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also responded, “L'chayim v’l’vracha. After the gathering, a discussion about this expression ensued. One chassid proposed: “The Talmud states that ‘when wine enters, secrets come out.’”8

When we drink wine, our emotions are revealed. However, this is something that requires a blessing that all go well, so we add on the word “l’vracha,” “for blessing.” The Hebrew word “l’vracha” can also be read as a contraction of two words, “leiv racha,” a “sensitive (literally, soft) heart,” something we wish for.

Of course, all of the above does not take away from perhaps the simplest meaning behind saying “l’chaim.” Just as Rabbi Akiva would bless others with “l’chaim” when drinking, so too we, when saying “l’chaim,” don’t necessarily have deeper intentions behind the toast; we mean it simply as a bestowal of blessings upon our friends.9

The Talmud tells us that when two people share a drink together, it brings them closer together.10 In light of this, the Tzemach Tzedek said that when two Jews, for whatever reason, share a drink and wish each other “l’chaim,” they draw down peace and blessings into the world. The power of comradery coupled with wishes of “l’chaim” is so great that Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, proclaimed that that which the closeness and good wishes of a chassidic gathering can accomplish, even the Archangel Michael cannot accomplish!11

On a final note, when Moshiach comes, there will be a grand feast, at the conclusion of which we will toast “l’chaim” over the wine that G‑d has kept hidden for this special occasion since the dawn of creation12—may it happen soon.13

L’chaim!