D’var Torah: 9 September 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 9 September 2016

For over 30 years I taught Biblical Hebrew Gramnnmar at theLeo Baeck College. There are very few rabbis in the Reform and Liberal movements who have not had the dubious privilege of being my students. I always saw myself as a pedagogic pussy-cat but appreciate that some of my students might have found me more red in tooth and claw…….

So I gained the reputation of being something of a grammar anorak, a grammar nerd. For me that was always a mark of honour and distinction – there is something quite special, remarkable, beautiful even about Hebrew grammar and the way it works (“he would say that, wouldn’t he?”…)

But the question that I know is on all your lips is, “just what is he on about? Has the old codger finally lost it?”

I hope not. In a month’s timer we will be wishing each other ‘l’shanah tovah,’ ”to” or “for a good year,” instead of simply saying ‘shanah tovah’ “a good year.” ‘L’shanah tovah’ is, of course, just a shortened version of ‘l’shanah tovah tikateyvu’ “may you be inscribed for a good year.”

While ‘l’shanah tovah’ might therefore be a grammatically-incomplete phrase, even a grammar anorak can recognise that sometimes idiomatic, popular usage takes precdence over good grammar.

It’s a sort of parallel to the ‘l’chaim’ that what we’ll say at the end of the service when we’ve made kiddush. ‘L’chaim’ is made up of a hebrew prefixed letter lamed, meaning ‘to’ or ‘for’ attached to the word ‘chaim,’ ‘life.’ As they used to sing in Anatavka, ‘to life, to life,l’chaim.’ As a prelude to drinking, ‘l’chaim’ is quite different to toasts in other cultures: Chinese ‘gan bei ‘dry the cup’; guamardshos in Georgia, ‘let us be victorious’ or Inuit ‘imeqatigiita’ ‘let us drink together’; here we have the rather meaningless ‘cheers.’ In many countries, you drink to health: so, for example, ‘santé’ in French; ‘salud’ in Spanish; ‘na zdrowie’ in Polish; ‘egeszsegedre’ in Magyar. Serbs wish each other ‘ziveli’ a long life and  I’m told there’s a Gaelic toast which supposedly goes ‘fad saol agat, gob fliuch, agus bas in Eirinn’and which means apparently “Long life to you, a wet mouth and death in Ireland.”

So l’shanah tovah and l’chaim would both seem to be similar cases of being a part of a longer phrase, with l’shanah tovah you often hear the fuller phrase, there doesn’t seem to be anything like that for l’chaim. But is ‘let us drink to life’ really what l’chaim means?

In Hebrew the definite article, ‘the,’ is a letter hay at the beginning of a word – ‘bayit’ ‘a house’; ‘ha-bayit’ ‘the house.’ But if I want to say ‘to the house’ technically it should be ‘l’ha’bayit’ but becomes simply ‘la’bayit.’ In English, abstract nouns – ‘life,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘art’ and so on – don’t need ‘the.’ In English we say ‘life is beautiful’ but in French it is ‘la vie est belle,’ or in Hebrew ‘ha’chaim nehedarim.’ ‘Chaim nehedarim’ – without the letter hay would actually mean ‘a wonderful life.’ So, if we wanted to drink a toast meaning “let’s drink to that wonderful thing called life” we should be saying la’chaim and not l’chaim.

The earliest mention of l’chaim in Jewish sources is in Shibbolei ha’Leket, a 13th C guidebook to Jewish ritual compiled by an Italian rabbi called Tsedakiah ben Avraham Anav. There he writes:

and when drinking a glass of wine…it is customary to respond to anyone reciting the blessing over it with the words l’chaim, that is ‘May what you drink bring you life and not hard.’

In medieval times, therefore, when the practice first originated, l’chaim was not said as we do today, but rather by anyone hearing borei p’ri ha’gafen. This is the custom observed by many Sephrardi and Middle Eastern Jews who exclaim l’chaim just before whoever is saying kiddush says borei p’ri hagafen.

All this is to say that l’chaim did not iriginally mean ‘to life’ but something like ‘may you be consigned to life,’ the life in question being that of whoever recited the blessing, not life in general. In such a case, haim does not take the definite article hay and l’chaim and not la’chaim is therefore correct.

Among Ashkenazi Jews, under the influence of the European custom, the l’chaim of the blessing over wine became the l’chaim of a toast without the l’ changing to la, so that today it seems to us that we are saying ‘Here’s to life!” And, indeed, if even a grammar anorak like me doesn’t mind being ungrammatical, that is exactly what we are doing.

Grammar isn’t everything you know.