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But how far back in Jewish history does even this use of “chai” go? The farthest back I have been able to trace it (which doesn’t mean scholars can’t do better) is to the early generations of Hasidic rabbis in Eastern Europe, and specifically, to rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730—1797), a disciple as a young man of the Baal Shem Tov, the Hasidic movement’s founder.
The story is told that once, arriving in a town to raise funds for needy Jews, Menachem Nachum encountered a miser and demanded that he contribute “chai rubles,” in return for which he, the renowned rabbi, would do him the honor of visiting his home. The miser agreed reluctantly, but when Menachem Nachum reached the front steps of the man’s grand house, he insisted on another “chai rubles” to climb them.
Gritting his teeth and pledging this sum, too, the miser was next told by the rabbi, now seated in his parlor, that a curse would be put on him if he did not proceed to donate everything he owned. With much weeping and wailing, he agreed — and turned into a great philanthropist, for Menachem Nachum, while assuming title to it, did not actually take his property away from him, and now that he no longer owned it, he felt no attachment to it and dispensed it freely to the poor.
There is also a story about Menachem Nachum’s younger contemporary, rabbi Aryeh Leib, “Grandfather of Shpole” (1724-1811), who asked a wealthy man to donate to charity “‘chai’ times ‘chai’ rubles” — that is, 324 rubles all told — as the price of curing his gravely ill daughter. Aryeh Leib was a disciple of rabbi Dov Ber, “the Maggid of Mezritch,” another disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, and it is perhaps relevant that the Baal Shem Tov himself was born on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Elul, 1698 — or, as the day is referred to in Hasidic literature, on ‘‘chai Elul.” It may have been as a result of this that the number 18, as expressed by “chai,” took on a special significance for Hasidism, which was reinforced by the word’s literal meaning.
Between the “Grandfather of Shpole” and the grandfather of “Bad Jews” are 200 years, more than enough time for chai as a potentially magical sum of money to also become chai as a potentially magical charm necklace — an article of dress, ironically, that no Hasidic Jew, and probably very few observant Jews of any kind, would agree to be caught dead wearing.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a video about the play “Bad Jews.”