Word of the Day / Hai: L’chaim, L’chaim, to Food That's Alive!

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“L’chaim, l’chaim, to life!” Tevye sings in “Fiddler on the Roof,” using the Jewish version of the glass-clinking salutation “cheers.” As indicated by the song, l’chaim means “to life,” and at lifecycle celebrations, many Jews give monetary gifts in multiples of 18, the numerical value of the word hai, which is pronounced with a guttural kh at the beginning and means “alive.”

But in Hebrew, at least, it’s not just those classified in the animal kingdom that are alive (though hai in the sense of “animal” is used in contrast to tzome’ah and domem in the Israeli version of the game “animal vegetable mineral”). It’s also anything that hasn’t been cooked, whether cow or cabbage.

Take carrots, for instance. Several Hebrew recipes make it clear that they are for “raw carrot salad” (salat gezer hai), to distinguish them from cooked-carrot dishes like the sweet Ashkenazi tzimmes and spicy Moroccan carrots. And people who eschew the use of stoves and ovens altogether are on a diet of mazon hai, or raw food.

In Jewish tradition, hai in the context of meat is seen as a bad thing. The injunction against eating ever min hahai – literally “limb from something that’s hai,” meaning meat taken from an animal while it is still alive – is designated as one of the seven Noahide laws, meaning Judaism considers it a no-no not just for Jews but for everyone else as well.

The term hai is used for raw meat in Samuel I, as part of a description of the sins of the sons of the priest Eli: “Yea, before the fat was made to smoke, the priest’s servant came, and said to the man that sacrificed: ‘Give flesh to roast for the priest; for he will not have cooked flesh of thee, but raw [hai].’”

But maybe you didn’t need me to tell you that tearing off the limb of a live animal might be a tad less likely to make you the life of the party than if you were to just follow Tevye’s advice: “Drink l’chaim, to life!”

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

In Hebrew, it’s not just those classified in the animal kingdom that are alive.Credit: Dreamstime

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