A Wish for Life

The word “l’chaim” means “to life,” and has been the traditional wish Jews share when raising their glasses in celebration for at least 2,000 years. You can read a fascinating treatment of why that term was chosen here.

In time, the term has come to refer to the act of sharing a glass of spirits, and even to the drink itself. Thus, shot glasses are “l'chaim glasses,” and making a toast is “making a l'chaim.”

An Engagement Celebration

This next bit is going to veer a bit off course, so please bear with me. In ancient times, it was customary for a Jewish couple to become legally “engaged” a full year before they would marry. During this time, the bride and groom were considered married, but they did not yet live together. This quasi-married state was known as erusin.

With the destruction of the Temple and the disruption of Jewish life at that time, this became increasingly difficult. What would happen if the bride or the groom were captured, or needed to flee from marauders during the year-long wait?

Thus, it was decided that the erusin should take place in tandem with the marriage itself, and be performed almost immediately before the seven blessings are recited and the couple is joined in full matrimony.

But what was to happen to the engagement? At the time when the two parties decided to go forward with the wedding, a contract was drawn up specifying the date of the wedding and other considerations.

But that, too, presented its share of difficulties. Backing out of a contract is no simple matter, on a legal or a spiritual plane. It has therefore become customary in many communities to delay the (largely perfunctory) contract signing to the wedding day as well.

So what is left for the engagement? A verbal commitment, called a vort in Yiddish. Thus, a sit-down engagement celebration has come to be known as a “vort.”

Since the occasion will most certainly be celebrated over a glass of firewater and a hearty wish of “l'chaim,” a smaller, more informal party is often called a “l'chaim.”

So now you know:

● If someone invites you to come to a l'chaim, get your party clothes ready.

● If someone invites you to make a l'chaim, get ready for a shot of good stuff and think of something nice to say in return. (If you’re invited to make multiple l'chaims, look for a designated driver.)