L'Chaim a Bad Grammatical Error?

Jews May Have Been Toasting Improperly for Centuries

Cheers to Jew Is it possible that Jews’ favorite toast includes a big, fat grammatical error? Philologos looks at the bottom of the glass for answers.
getty images
Cheers to Jew Is it possible that Jews’ favorite toast includes a big, fat grammatical error? Philologos looks at the bottom of the glass for answers.

By Philologos

Published November 21, 2011, issue of November 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Marvin Kastenbaum has a question inspired by my column of October 21, which dealt with the practice, common among American Jews, of saying “l’Shana tova,” “For a good year,” instead of simply “Shana tova,” “A good year,” at Rosh Hashanah time. The column pointed out that l’shana tova is a shortening of l’shana tova tikateyvu, “May you be inscribed for a good year,” and expressed the opinion — with which some of you disagree — that even if l’shana tova is by itself a grammatically incomplete phrase, there is nothing terribly wrong with it as idiomatic usage. Now, Mr. Kastenbaum, coming to my support, writes to ask, “Why should l’shana tova grate on anyone’s ears more than l’chaim?”

This sounds like a sensible question— but are the cases of l’shana tova and l’chaim analogous? Let’s look into it.

L’chaim, the standard Hebrew and Yiddish drinking toast that is widely used by Jews in other languages, too, is composed of the Hebrew prepositional prefix l’ (pronounced “luh”) — “to” or “for” — and the Hebrew noun ḥayim, “life”; generally, it is translated as “To life,” although “Here’s to life!” would be an equally good English rendering. Among the world’s many toasts, which vary from Chinese gan bei, “Dry the cup,” to Georgian gaumardshos, “Let us be victorious,” to Inuit imeqatigiitta, “Let us drink together,” this is not an unusual formulation. Although it is more common to drink to health (for example, Spanish salud, Polish na zdrowie, Hungarian egészségedre, etc.), Brazilians sometimes say viva, “live”; Serbs wish each other ziveli, “a long life,” and there is a Gaelic toast that supposedly goes, if you can believe it, “Fad saol agat, gob fliuch, agus bás in Eirinn,” which is to say, “Long life to you, a wet mouth and death in Ireland.”

L’shana tova and l’chaim would indeed seem to be analogous in that each is part of a fuller utterance, although in the case of l’shana tova this utterance is often heard, whereas in that of l’chaim — “[Let us drink] to life” — it almost never is. But is “[Let us drink] to life” what l’chayim actually means? If so, we have a new grammatical problem on our hands.

I’ll explain. The definite article in Hebrew is ha-, so that if bayit, say, is “house,” ha-bayit is “the house.” Yet if I want to say “to the house,” I don’t say l’-ha-bayit. Rather, the l’ and the ha- combine to form the single syllable la-, so that “to the house” is la-bayit. This is something learned in the third week of “Beginning Hebrew.”

It’s only in the 23rd or 49th week, however, that one learns something else — namely, that in Hebrew, as opposed to English but as in French and many other languages, abstract nouns take a definite article. In English, for example, one says, “Life is wonderful,” but in French it’s “La vie est grande,” and in Hebrew, “ha-ḥayim nehedarim.” (Hayim nehedarim without the article would mean “a wonderful life.”) Therefore, if we wish to toast someone by saying “[Let’s drink] to life,” meaning, “Let’s drink to that wonderful thing called life,” we should say la’ chayim and not l’chayim.

Have we Jews, then, been saying l’ḥayim ungrammatically all along? I wouldn’t jump to such a hasty conclusion.

Let’s look briefly at l’ḥayim’s history. The earliest mention of it in Jewish sources in the context of drinking can be found in the 13th-century Italian rabbi Tsedakiah ben Avraham Anav’s guidebook to Jewish ritual, “Shibbolei ha-Leket.” There he writes: “And when drinking a glass of wine… it is customary to respond [to anyone reciting the blessing over it] l’ḥayim, that is, ‘May what you drink bring you life and not harm.’” In medieval times, in other words, when the practice first originated, l’chaim was said not by a toaster in our sense of the word, but rather by anyone hearing the borei p’ri ha-gafen, the “Blessed are You O God our Lord, King of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.” This is a custom observed to this day by Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews in Israel and elsewhere, who, during the Sabbath and holiday Kiddush, exclaim l’chaim after the Aramaic call to order savrei maranan, “Attention, my masters,” that precedes the actual blessing.

L’chaim, in other words, did not originally mean “[Let us drink] to life;” it meant, “[May you be consigned] to life,” the life in question being that of the blessing’s reciter, not life in general. In such a case, ḥayim does not take the definite article and l’chaim, not la’chayim, is correct.

Among Ashkenazi Jews, under the influence of the European custom of toasting (in the Muslim Middle East, where alcohol was not openly consumed, it didn’t exist), the l’chaim of the blessing over wine became the l’chaim of a toast without the l’ changing to a la-, so that today it seems to us that we are saying, “Here’s to life!” And indeed, if we don’t mind being ungrammatical, that is what we are doing. Grammar, I repeat, isn’t everything.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.