Le-cha-yim. The year 2014, is about to enter our door. In honor of the New Year, let us explore the meaning of the word cha-yim and a few interesting phrases connected to it.
Cha-yim, in Hebrew, means 'life.' The root of the word is ch.y.h, meaning 'live' and is connected to the adjective chai which means 'lively,' 'active,' or 'raw.' In the Bible the root ch.y.h is mentioned 768 times in several forms, and the noun cha-yim is mentioned 150 times, forming many key phrases, which stayed with us to this day. In our short space, we can mention only a few. For example, most of us are familiar with the famous tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden known as etz ha-cha-yim, 'the tree of life' (Gen 2:9). But some of us may not be aware that Eve's name, in Hebrew Chavah, is also rooted in cha-yim. As the Bible explains, she was em kol chai, 'the mother of all the living'
Interestingly, the Tree of Life is also mentioned in the biblical Wisdom literature. The writer of Proverbs exclaimed etz cha-yim he, 'she is a tree of life to those who grasps her' (Prov. 18:20) and no, it was not said about the Torah, but rather about Wisdom. We also should mention here the poignant advice of the Wisdom Writer-ma-vet ve-cha-yim be-yad ha-la-shon, literally 'death and life are in the power of the tongue' warning us to watch what we say (Prov. 18:21).
Not surprisingly, cha-yim appears many times in our prayer books. In the High Holiday liturgy, we find the term sefer ha-cha-yim 'the Book of Life,' in which we pray to be inscribed. Also, in the beginning of each holiday or in celebrating any new event, we say the blessing sheh-heh-cheh-ya-nu thanking God for 'keeping us alive.' In Modern Hebrew, cha-yim is used in many expressions. Ah-sa cha-yim-'have the time of one's life' and ramat cha-yim-'standard of living,' are but two examples.
We cannot leave our short survey with out mentioning the joyful toast "le-cha-yim." Here the preposition le meaning 'to,' and cha-yim, 'life,' merge in salutation 'to life.' Some say that the custom of saying le-cha-yim before drinking wine developed as a way to avert any harm, which might occur due to intoxication, as happened to Noah after the flood (Gen. 9:21). Regardless, saluting life with the exclamation le-cha-yim while holding a glass of wine at hand is an old custom recorded already in writings from 5th century Israel (Tanchuma Pikuday 2).
So, as 2013 ends and 2014 enters, let us raise a glass and sing with hope, 'to life, to life, le-cha-yim.' I wish all our readers a healthy and happy year.