Exploring 'Chai' Culture

Most Observant Jews Would Never Wear Amulet

Chai Drama: Joshua Harmon’s comedy “Bad Jews” centers around the possession of a prized chai.
Courtesy Roundabout Theatre
Chai Drama: Joshua Harmon’s comedy “Bad Jews” centers around the possession of a prized chai.

By Philologos

Published November 11, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


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!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • 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.