January 21, 2014

To Life 101

To the uninitiated it might look like a flying horse or an abstract camel. It’s clearly not that Jewish star or hand (hamsa) that many people instantly recognize. It’s a "chai," the Hebrew word commonly translated as “life,” though it is more accurately “alive” or “living.” It is a powerful word in Jewish tradition because life is of utmost value. According to Jewish law, with only a few exceptions, a person may break any laws to save a life. 

Dromedary Camel
A Dromedary Camel looks oddly like a chai

Hebrew Word "Chai"
The Hebrew word "Chai," (read from right to left)

Interestingly, the numbers in Hebrew  numerology (gematria) that correspond to the letters in the word chai add up to the number 18. This makes 18 a very special number, symbolic of long life and prosperity. It appears a lot in Jewish gift-giving. It is common to give monetary gifts or charitable donations in multiples of 18. If your Jewish friend gave you $126 as a wedding gift, your reaction was probably: “Huh?” Check again, 126 is divisible by 7. Mystery solved. 

We often make the toast: “l’chaim,” or “to life!” But Fiddler on the Roof already taught you that.

The common phrase, “Am Yisrael chai!,” “the Nation of Israel lives!” is a proclamation of joy, celebration, defiance and resolve by the Jewish People. It is an affirmation that God has never forgotten the Children of Israel (Jacob). Think about it. In the face of all odds, a tiny nation, a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, targeted for liquidation and persecution time and again – lives. The fact that this tiny nation hated by many continues to thrive, to contribute to civilization, to maintain its cultural identity, and to celebrate life’s joys is worthy of a triumphant cheer: “The Nation of Israel Lives!” 

And so the chai pendants we wear are more than just beautiful pieces of jewelry. They are symbols of a proud and enduring heritage and a hopeful future. 

Chai pendants are suitable for both men and women, depending on the style, of course. 

modern, simple silver chai
A modern, simple, solid, silver chai

a gold heart chai
A chai pendant in a heart shape in yellow gold

The symbolism of the powerful word doesn't have to be for Jews only. Anyone can wear this symbol of life. Hey, even “the King” wore a chai. That’s right, Elvis Presley wore a chai in his later years. And Elvis was indeed a Christian, though it has been said that his maternal great grandmother was Jewish. If true, Elvis was technically Jewish under Jewish law. But that’s neither here nor there. Unless we missed out on a Jewish rendition of Viva Las Vegas: L’Chaim Las Vegas, anyone? No? I’ll show myself the door.

Elvis wearing a chai pendantElvis wearing a chai pendant