Getting together to share a drink with friends, often referred to as having a "l'chaim", occurs frequently within the Jewish social and ritual cycle. However, it is important to preface a discussion on the role of alcohol in Judaism with some words of warning. The Midrash lists the stages which a person goes through as he begins to drink.[1] Before one has anything to drink one is considered to be as pure as a lamb. When one drinks responsibly and in moderation one is deemed to be as brave as a lion. When one consumes more alcohol than is called for one is like a pig wallowing in urine and excrement. Once one has become drunk one is comparable to a dancing monkey. We are warned that drunkenness always brings about trouble.[2]Although anything which is potentially addictive must be employed cautiously and responsibly, a l'chaim can be beautiful moment for meaningful fellowship and exchange.

It is interesting to note that although as a general rule one is never to eat or drink while standing,[3] it is permissible to do so when drinking a l'chaim.[4] So too, in an event or atmosphere where eating while standing is considered to be acceptable, such as at a kiddush, it is permissible to do so, as well.

When drinking, many have the custom to first raise their glass and say "l'chaim", along with any other niceties, and to then recite the blessing and drink.[5] Others have the custom to first recite the blessing and drink a little and only then to proceed with "l'chaim", and the like.[6] One should never recite the blessing over the beverage and then say "l'chaim" before first drinking, as doing so is considered to be a forbidden interruption between the blessing and the drinking. Somewhat related to this idea is the procedure when dipping an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah. Many authorities rule that one only recites the "yehi ratzon" prayer upon the apple dipped in honey after first reciting the blessing and eating some of it. This is because reciting the yehi ratzon before eating the apple is considered by some authorities to be a forbidden interruption which renders the blessing invalid.[7]

It may just be that drinking of a l'chaim in honor of a simcha or other momentous occasion may have originated with Rabbi Akiva who had done so at his son's Bar-Mitzva.[8] Shouting "l'chaim" is actually a very significant component of sharing a drink with someone. In fact, the word "l'chaim" shares the same gematria as the word "minhag", which serves to recall our dedication to all Jewish customs. We are taught that loyalty and dedication to even seemingly insignificant customs has the power to destroy evil forces.[9] Likewise, we are taught that observing customs, including those related to the "l'chaim," will bring one many blessings.[10] We are told that when Jews come together to wish each other "l'chaim", God immediately forgives all their sins.[11]

Some authorities suggest that the cheering of "l'chaim" when drinking an alcoholic beverage is meant to recall the forbidden tree of the Garden of Eden. A number of sources indicate that the forbidden "tree" may have actually been a grape vine from which Adam and Eve ate grapes or drank wine.[12] Alternatively, it is explained that Adam was drunk when he ate from the forbidden tree.[13] As such, we say "l'chaim" before drinking as a prayer in which we ask God to bless all those who are present and that nothing negative result from the drinking session which is to follow.

Another reason we say "l'chaim" before drinking among friends is in order to stress that we are drinking for a joyous purpose and not a sorrowful one. This is to remind us that wine was originally intended to be used as a beverage for comforting mourners.[14] Similarly, saying "l'chaim" is also intended to recall that one who was about to be executed by the Beit Din would first be given some alcohol to drink as an anesthetic in order to impede his awareness of the proceedings.[15] There are a number of other explanations for saying "l'chaim", as well.[16]

Some have the custom to shake hands whenever drinking with someone else, as was the practice of many kabbalists. It is believed that shaking hands when sharing a drink with someone has the ability to ward off any danger and bring about spiritual benefits. It is also believed that drinking while locked in a handshake with another person has the power to bring about physical healing for any ailments one might have.[17] The owner of the drink should be the first to recite the blessing before drinking.[18]

It is customary to respond "l'chaim tovim u'lshalom" when someone in attendance has toasted a "l'chaim."[19] Others have the custom to merely respond with a reciprocal "l'chaim" when someone toasts l'chaim. One should not answer "l'chaim tovim," as those words have the same gematria as the word "curse."[20] While common custom is to drink a "l'chaim" upon wine, scotch, or schnapps, some do so upon beer as well.[21] It was once customary to say a "l'chaim" each time one would open a new barrel of wine.[22] There also exists a custom to say "besimchatchem," meaning, "at your simchas" in addition to, or even in place of "l'chaim," when raising a toast.[23]

A frequent occasion when one will see a "l'chaim" in the synagogue is on a day when someone is observing a yartzeit. It is customary for those observing a yartzeit to provide some food and drinks, including some liquor, to fellow congregants following services. These refreshments are referred to as a "tikkun" meaning "to correct" or "to perfect", as if to say that providing a tikkun in the synagogue on the day of a yartzeit contributes to perfecting the soul of the deceased. It is interesting to note that this custom is actually somewhat at odds with the ancient custom to fast on a yartzeit.[24] It is believed that one should actually fast when observing a yartzeit as it is considered a day when one is visited by ill-fortune.[25] Fasting on a yartzeit is also encouraged as a method to recall the deceased repeatedly throughout the day.[26] It is also said to be an act which attains atonement on their behalf.[27] Nevertheless, as fasting is quite difficult for most people, it has become customary to replace the yartzeit fast with the informal "l'chaim" gathering, in the honor of the person one is observing yartzeit for.[28]

The practice of partaking in food and drink on a yartzeit rather than fasting is further rationalized because the blessings and "amens" recited over the refreshments serve as a merit for the deceased.[29] So too, organizing an informal gathering where one offers guests a "l'chaim" and other foods is deemed to be a fulfillment of the mitzva of hachnasat orchim, which serves as yet another merit for the deceased.[30] Some have the custom to drink a "l'chaim" after reciting kiddush levana each month.

Whenever one drinks, it should be accompanied by cake.[31] When one does so, it is best to first recite a blessing upon the cake, eat some of it, and then to recite the blessing upon the beverage and drink it. Nevertheless, if one has no desire to eat cake or other foods one may certainly drink one's "l'chaim" without hesitation.[32] Making a "l'chaim" at a brit is a segula for making a "l'chaim" at that child's wedding.[33]

[1] Tanchuma Noach 12

[2] Kaf Hachaim 167:108

[3] Be'er Heitev O.C. 170:17

[4] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 170:11

[5] Shraga Hameir 2:25, Minhagei Eretz Yisrael (Gallis) 15:7

[6] Pri Megadim M.Z. O.C. 174:11, Minhag Yisrael Torah 170:17, Kaf Hachaim 167:108

[7] Magen Avraham O.C. 582

[8] Shabbat 67b

[9] Taamei Haminhagim Likutim 14

[10] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 170:11

[11] Taamei Haminhagim Likutim 14

[12] Bereishit Rabba 15:8

[13] Orchot Chaim;Birkat Hamazon 20

[14] Eruvin 65a, Kaf Hachaim 167:108

[15] Sanhedrin 43a, Shraga Hameir 2:25

[16] Bach O.C. 174

[17] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 170:17

[18] Taamei Haminhagim Likutim 142

[19] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 170:17

[20] Minhagei Chatam Sofer 86:5

[21] Shraga Hameir 2:25

[22] Yerushalmi Berachot 6:8

[23] Minhagei Eretz Yisrael (Gallis) 15:7

[24] Nedarim 12a, O.C. 598:8

[25] Elya Rabba 568:15

[26] Terumat Hadeshen 293

[27] Mahari Mintz 9

[28] Minchat Yitzchak 6:135

[29] Sdei Chemed;Beit Haknesset 40

[30] Dudaei Hasadeh 45, Minchat Yitzchak 6:135, Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 132:7

[31] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 170:17

[32] Minhag Yisrael Torah O.C. 211:1, Shraga Hameir 8:87

[33] Kohelet Rabba 3:3