There is, so I’m told, a new off-Broadway play in New York that is called “Bad Jews.” Its plot revolves around, believe it or not, the struggle of three grandchildren for possession of their beloved and recently deceased grandfather’s “chai” (pronounced khy, with the guttural “ch” of “Bach”) — which is, as most or all of you know, a kind of charm necklace featuring the Hebrew letters h.et and yud in various designs. These two letters spell the word hai, which means “living” or “alive.” (It does not mean “life,” which is hayyim in Hebrew.) Considered by some to have a protective, amuletlike value, chais are worn by most people either because they simply like how they look or because they wish to proclaim their Jewish identity more subtly than by an assertive Jewish symbol like a Star of David.
Indeed, a chai is by no means a traditional Jewish amulet, and chai pendants probably did not come into existence until half-a-century or so ago, when costume jewelers first started producing them, which would make the grandfather in “Bad Jews” a member of the first generation to go around with one. Before that, there was no such thing as a chai at all.
When used other than in its ordinary sense, the word “chai” could mean only “18,” as in a Hebrew (or Yiddish or English) sentence like, “I donated chai dollars to my synagogue’s Passover matzo fund.” This is because the numerical value of the Hebrew letter het is eight and that of yod 10, and while the regular way of writing “18” is yud-het, het-yud adds up to the same thing and has the advantage of being associated with life.
In its sense of “18,” chai was traditionally used in Jewish life almost entirely in the context of making donations or giving gifts, often stated in terms of multiples, as in, “He gave three times chai [dollars] to Sam’s son for his bar-mitzvah.” In some Orthodox synagogues, where the custom exists of bidding for the privilege of performing various ritual tasks connected to the Torah scroll, this is frequently done with such multiples, too. I have in my possession a High Holy Day price list, put out by the Young Israel-Chabad Synagogue of Pinellas County, in Fla., with such suggested “opening bids” as: “Carrying of Chais did not come into existence until half a century ago. Torah through Shul [synagogue] — 5 x Chai”; “3rd Aliyah [being called up to make a blessing over the Torah] — 10 x Chai”; “Hagba [lifting the Torah scroll from the lectern before it is rolled shut] — 20 x Chai,” etc. Once the bidding gets heated, one assumes, the sky x chai is the limit.