Question. Why do we say “L’Chayyim” when we have a drink?
Answer. Wine “gladdens the human heart” (Psalm 104:15). In moderation it is an aid to health; the sages used to say when they took a drink, “Wine and health to the rabbis and their students!” (Shabbat 67b).
But wine can also cause problems. According to the Zohar, the forbidden fruit that Adam ate was grapes. Noah sinned because of wine (Gen. 9:21). The sins caused by taking too much wine are usually sins of speech –
“When wine comes in, discretion leaves”
say the sages (Eruvin 65a; cf. Prov. 23:29). Hence when we take a drink our “L’Chayyim” indicates our intention to conduct ourselves correctly and not commit an “averah”.
Another explanation is that wine was given to deaden the senses – Solomon says,
“Give strong drink to him that is about to perish and wine to the bitter in soul” (Prov. 31:6).
A person being led out to execution was given wine; saying “L’Chayyim” shows that a person is not a condemned criminal (Sanh. 43a).
Wine was also given to mourners, and a “L’Chayyim” signifies that we are happy and not sad.
WAYS & WILLS
Question. I can’t be sure of being sufficiently with-it to tell my family before I die how I hope they will run their lives when I am gone. What do you advise?
Answer. Write an ethical will. This is a genre of Jewish writing which was widespread for many centuries. Israel Abrahams published a whole book entitled “Hebrew Ethical Wills”, which is not only historically important but practical as guidance for people in your situation.
These wills don’t deal with money or property, or even with philosophy, but with ethical principles. Though they often begin with the words, “My son”, their intended audience is the family as a whole. They express the person’s hope that the family would stay together, pray regularly, be honest in business, deal uprightly with gentiles, and raise their children with moral and ethical principles.
Sometimes they reflect social problems such as the temptation to talk gossip and distract other people during synagogue services. Indeed some ethical wills encourage members of the family to stay home and not go to the synagogue in order not to be distracted or led into evil talk. Often the writer shows a shrewd understanding of his family, for example when he urges them not to be lazy.
We see that earlier generations were not always as pious and learned as we imagine: sometimes a father has to tell his son bluntly not to forget to devote time to his studies and not to give his teacher trouble.
Question. Where does the custom originate of throwing sweets on Bar-Mitzvah boys and bridegrooms in the synagogue?
Answer. In some places there once was a custom, on the Shabbat before a wedding, of showering the bridegroom with walnuts, almonds and dried fruits, symbolising the hope that the marriage should be fruitful and fulfill the commandment,
“Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
The custom was later extended to Bar-Mitzvahs, not simply, one hopes, out of fun but to express the hope that the boy would be prolific in his observance of the commandments.
In places where unpackaged sweets or peeled nuts are thrown, Rabbi Chayyim David Halevi of Tel Aviv sees an infringement of the law of “bal tash’chit” – “you shall not destroy” (see Deut. 21:19 and Maimonides, Hilchot M’lachim 6:10). Rabbi Halevi says that when edible items are thrown, even in honour of a Bar-Mitzvah or wedding, much of the food becomes broken and wasted and is only fit to be thrown away.
He also criticises any use of food that makes it unfit for consumption, such as cutting vegetables and painting them, inserting vegetables as a decoration in an art work, or even using flour in order to make glue.
All of this is a form of “bal tash’chit” and should not be done if there is a practicable substitute.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com