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From: Sam in Portland

Dear Rabbi,
When Jews drink alcohol together, especially wine, they say l’chaim. What is the source of the custom? Thank you.

Dear Sam,

Despite the spiritually elevating potential of wine (or perhaps because of its great potential) mankind hasn’t fared well with the vine.

According to one opinion in our sources (Sanhedrin 70a), the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was the grape vine. (By the way, none of our sources consider the forbidden fruit an apple.) Mortality, therefore, was brought upon Adam, Eve and all humanity through the vine.

Not only immortality, but also immorality, passed through the grape vine: “And [Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent…And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son had done to him.[Our Sages assert that Cham abused and/or castrated his father - Rashi]. And Noah said, Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren.” (Gen. 9:21-24)

Lot similarly suffered wine’s blush through his own seed: “Our father is old, and there is no man on earth to come upon us, as is the custom of all the earth.Come, let us give our father wine to drink, and let us lie with him…And Lot’s two daughters conceived from their father…And the elder bore a son, and she named him Moab [“from father”]…and the younger also bore a son, and she named him Ben-ami [“from my people”]”. (Gen 19:31-38)

No less licentious is an account of the first recorded non-Jewish “toast” given at a Saxony feast in the year 450. British King Vortigern was so moved by the simple sentiment “Lord King, be of health,” offered by Rowena, daughter of the Saxony leader Hengist, that he proceeded to seduce her. Intoxicated by drink, lust and greed, he then bargained with her father Hengist for her hand.

In contrast, a distinctly Jewish toast far preceded this infamous event in time, and exceeded it in quality. The Talmud (Shabbat 67a) relates that Rabbi Akiva (15-135 CE) blessed the guests at his son’s wedding with the toast “Wine and life to the mouths of the rabbis and to the mouths of their students!” On a purely simple level this is a beautiful toast. However, it has a deeper meaning as well. The numerical value of the Hebrew word for “wine” is the same as that for “secret”; and “life” is interchangeable with “Torah”. Accordingly, Rabbi Akiva toasted that the mouths of the Sages should always be full with both the revealed and the “hidden” Torah.

Also, the Talmud teaches (Eruvin 65a), “When wine goes in, secrets come out”. On one level, one who is drunk loses control, and what’s revealed may not always be pleasant or appropriate. However, our Sages (Megillah 7) refer to a certain state of inebriation as being “perfumed”, or “pleasantly scented”, whereby one doesn’t lose control but rather sheds the restrictions of normal consciousness, enabling him to experience, reveal and express pleasant and profound spiritual concepts. According to whether one’s inner being is pure and holy or impure and unholy, wine literally brings out the best or the worst in a person.

Therefore, it is out of our desire that the spiritually best flow from our drinking that we toast l’chaim. It’s worth noting that many Jews merely raise the glasses, but don’t clink them together, unlike the non-Jews who believed the sound of the clinking glass wards off evil spirits. (Others explain that clinking the glasses fuses the senses of touch and hearing to enjoying the wine’s taste, smell and sight, thereby enhancing all of the senses in this elevating experience.)

Also, because in Judaism wine symbolizes bounty, blessing and joy, many have the custom of saying l’chaim only after making the appropriate blessing over the wine and drinking a bit, so that the toast of l’chaim should be infused with the holiness and blessing of G-d’s name and the inherent joy and bounty of the wine.

I’ll conclude with a beautiful idea I recently read: Although “l’chaim” is usually translated “to life”, it is plural and literally means “to lives”. This expresses the idea that no one can live life alone. We all need someone else. There’s no point in toasting to life alone, because life that is not shared is unlivable. Rather we toast “to lives” in which we share with others what is truly meaningful – Torah joyful experiences.

§ Source: Ta’amei haMinhagim 291-293

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