To Life

It all started the day I was hauled in for speeding … without a car.

I woke up with my chest pounding to the beat of a different drummer. While I was thinking about what to do, my wife called the doctor. My EKG showed my heart was doing 141 in a 100 zone, and the doctor shipped me off in an ambulance.

The charges against me were atrial flutter alternating with atrial fibrillation. In simple terms — I got no rhythm.

At the hospital, they asked what medications I was taking.

“Caffeine and alcohol.”

They were shocked. Then they shocked me.


The leader of the rhythm section — cardiac electrophysiology (I didn’t make that up) — did a cardioversion on me. He shocked my heart to reset it. But it was a temporary fix. Later, he did an ablation — incinerating accumulated junk in the attic of my heart.

Then he shocked me figuratively. He ordered me off alcohol.

Oddly enough, his partner didn’t agree. He asked if I drink every day.

“No, I drink on Shabbos — after the fish. But I drink enough to keep the fish from flapping.”

He smiled and said, “You don’t drink too much.”

Now what? Do I follow the scold or the smile? It was a pair-o’-docs.

I asked my primary doctor. He said I could have a shot.

The Braisa of Rabi Yishmael lists 13 Rules for interpreting the Torah. The last says, “If two passages contradict each other, a third passage can be found to resolve the contradiction.” I figure the logic could apply here too.

So why am I telling you this?

A colleague asked me, “Why do Jews say ‘L’chaim’ when they drink?”

L’chaim is a time-honored tradition, even among nondrinkers. It has become a noun. Having a l’chaim means sharing a drink and good wishes. When two families announce the engagement of their children, the event is called a l’chaim.

My brother Rabbi Nota Schiller says, “Some people drink mei’chaim — to get away from life. We drink l’chaim — to life.”

Long before my pair-o’-docs, there was a paradox. The 15th-century classic Orchos Tzaddikim condemns drinking:

“There is a confusing joy that beclouds all of the mitzvos and causes fear of Hashem to depart from the hearts of men — that of drinkers and revelers. … The end of this joy is sorrow, for many ills result from the frivolity of drinking.”

Two pages later, he quotes Mishlei (31:6–7): “Give strong drink to one in despair, and wine to the bitter of soul; let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his toil no more.” Wine “gladdens the heart.”

A contradiction? No.

“This teaches us the benefits of wine when it is drunk in moderation in the manner of the wise — in which case the mind rules over the wine and not the wine over the mind. The wise drink at set times with friends and acquaintances and with the saintly and the righteous, and not with boors … For wine will increase the wisdom of the deep. It is a tree of life for those who keep [the Law]. … This is how wine should be used: One should use it as a cure for his sorrow, in order to strengthen himself in Torah by learning it with joy, for when one is steeped in sorrow, he cannot learn.”

Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Sh’or Yoshuv, was a master of this balancing act. He used the l’chaim as a tool to evoke joy and camaraderie. But he also taught me the other side. After a bris in the yeshivah, we were cleaning up and I saw a bottle of scotch that had a little left. So, I poured it into a cup and drank it.

Reb Shlomo glowered at me. The lesson was clear. Drinking with no context is debauchery. (As my grandmother might’ve said, “Feh!”)

So, is drinking bad or good?


And from that paradox comes the custom.

Rabbi Dovid Cohen’s explanation (in Yiddish — A Holy Language) is a sobering thought: “When drinking wine or spirits, people say ‘L’chaim’ to each other. The custom is based on what the Sages say (Sanhedrin 43a), ‘When taking a convict to be executed, give him … wine, to intoxicate him and numb his senses.’

So, when we drink something intoxicating, we bless each other not to be dead drunk. On the contrary, this drink should be to life — l’chaim.

Rabbi Cohen cites the Daas Zekenim m’Baalei Tosafos (Vayikra 10:6) that Adam drank too much when celebrating his marriage. This led to his sin. So, when we use wine at joyous occasions, we say “L’chaim tovim ul’shalom — may this occasion of drinking wine be auspicious, leading to constructive life.”

I heard a story about a man who stopped going to weddings and other simchos because they took up too much time from his learning and his work. A few months later, though, he realized he wasn’t understanding what he was learning. And he was earning less money. Not only that, but his shalom bayis (marital harmony) was going down the tubes.

He came crying to his Rebbe.

The Rebbe said, “You mean, for three months, nobody said l’chaim to you? … How do you expect to have chaim (life — i.e., Torah), tovim (good fortune), and shalom (peace) without anyone saying l’chaim tovim ul’shalom to you?”

I’ll drink to that.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to


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