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

(page 2 of 2)

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 philologos@forward.com

Here’s a video about the play “Bad Jews.”


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!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • 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.