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!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • 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.