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What is the source or reason that a l'chaim is often said over a drink of alcohol instead of any other beverage, or over other foods, or even over no food at all?

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Why do you assume that the "L'chaim!" is the cause, and not the alcohol? Is it not like "Salud!"? –  Charles Koppelman Nov 11 '13 at 17:20
    
@CharlesKoppelman meaning the reason for drinking the alcohol is because you just said l'chaim? but then that begs the question, why did you say l'chaim? –  please remove my account Nov 11 '13 at 17:53
    
Fiddler On The Roof? –  Gary Nov 11 '13 at 19:53
    
@pleaseremovemyaccount No. What I'm saying is that you can drash all you'd like, but we say "l'chaim" when we drink just as Englishmen say "cheers" when they drink. Is your question why davka the word "l'chaim"? –  Charles Koppelman Nov 11 '13 at 22:13
    
Do you want a source, or do you want a reason? –  Charles Koppelman Nov 12 '13 at 2:36

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A primary source would be the מדרש תנחומה in פרשת פקודי at סימן ב

העת שחוקרין העדים על העבירה שאדם עושה, יוצאין הסנהדרין וכל ישראל עמם לרחוב העיר, ומוציאין לשם לאיש שהוא מחוייב סקילה או אחד מארבע מיתות בית דין, ויוצאין שנים מהם או שלשה הגדולים מהם ודורשין לעדים. וכששבין מלחקור, אומר להם, סברי מרנן. והם אומרים, אם לחיים לחיים, ואם למיתה למיתה. אם הוא מחויב סקילה, מביאין לו יין טוב וחזק ומשקין אותו, כדי שלא יצטער מן הסקילה. ובאין העדים ועוקדין לו ידיו ורגליו ושמין אותו בבית הסקילה, ולוקחין העדים אבן אחת גדולה שימות בה ושמין אותה על לבו. כיצד שמין אותה על לבו. שמין אותה בעליה אחת, כדי שלא ישים האחד חלקו קודם חברו, אלא שישימו אותה ביחד על לבו, כדי לקיים מה שכתוב, יד העדים תהיה בו בראשונה (שם יז ז). ומאותה שעה ואילך, כל ישראל פטורין לרגום אותם באבנים. וכן עושים לכל מיתה ומיתה שהוא חייב למות מיתת בית דין. וכן שליח צבור כשיש בידו כוס של קדוש או של הבדלה [והוא ירא מסם המות שלא יהיה בכוס], והוא אומר סברי מרנן, ואומר הקהל לחיים, כלומר כי לחיים יהא הכוס.

In summary:

After the witnesses were cross-examined, the judges would return and would be asked "סברי מרנן" - "what do you think, Sirs?"

If he was innocent they would answer לחיים...

Which is why the Shliach Tzibbur says on the cup of Kiddush or Havdala [if he is worried about the poison in his cup] סברי מרנן and the congregation answers לחיים.

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excellent, that was the medrash I was looking for. couldn't find the source. thank you. –  please remove my account Nov 13 '13 at 14:23
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What is the reason the rest of us do it when we aren't afraid of poison? I assume the question was referring to a regular case, not an Action/Adventure Rated R synagogue? –  Double AA Nov 13 '13 at 17:23
    
@DoubleAA: Note how that "poisonous phrase" is in brackets - in the printed versions also. Possibly it was added by some editor to explain something [e.g. why the editor didn't do this] - while "we" do it L'Zecher the death sentence. –  Danny Schoemann Nov 14 '13 at 8:47

Nitei Gavriel Nesuin 2 - 80:21:38 says that the source for saying L'Chaim on wine is Sefer Hapardes L'Rashi, Ravia Brachos 120, Tanya Rabsi 24, Bach Orach Chaim 174. The reason is that since wine brought a curse on the world when Noach drank and cursed Canaan therefore we say L'Chaim when we drink it. He also mentions in the name of the Baal Shem Tov not to say L'Chaim on whiskey, only to say it on wine.

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I couldn't make heads or tails of your reference to Rashi, so I expanded my search. I looked in Rashi's responsa and in Sefer HaPardes (I especially looked through Sha'ar HaMa'aseh, where you would expect to find this topic considering where the other sources discuss it). No dice. –  Fred Nov 11 '13 at 20:18
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@Fred: I added in a link –  Gershon Gold Nov 11 '13 at 21:04
    
Thanks!........ –  Fred Nov 11 '13 at 21:32

I heard the following:

Wine and frankincense were administered to a person condemned to the death penalty Sanhedrin 43a

This is an association between wine and death. So we say when we drink wine, L'chaim "to Life."

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That's one of the other reasons given in the sources quoted by Gershon. –  Fred Nov 11 '13 at 23:21

I have no sources, but it seems very pashut to me. Every culture I know of that alcohol has a default thing to say when drinking for pleasure with friends. In England, "Cheers!" The English toast to happiness. In Spain, "¡Salud!" The Spaniards toast to health. In China, "干杯! (gān bēi!)" The Chinese toast to the bottom of the glass. Jews say "L'chaim!" We toast to life.

I don't know why that is, but it seems to be part of human drinking culture. Perhaps people are in good spirits when consuming good spirits, and they want to connect the two. Is this from bringing libations to gods as some in the comments below claim? Maybe, but we can likely find that most things that we all do are rooted in that. It was the way of the world for a long time. As I'm not a sociologist or anthropologist, anything I say here is conjecture.

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If true, and if toasting in general derives from an avoda zara related practice from Greek and Roman times, this may bring up a question of b'chukoseihem lo seileichu (along with the possibility that the explanations given by the rishonim in Gershon's answer are merely post-facto). –  Fred Nov 12 '13 at 2:13
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@Fred ...or it derives from the human experience. And I wouldn't be surprised at all if those answers are nice midrashes put on something ancient. –  Charles Koppelman Nov 12 '13 at 2:15
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@CharlesKoppelman Tracing the European practice of toasting back to avoda zara provides by far the most compelling explanation of its origins. So accepting your explanation would possibly' require prohibiting the practice of l'chaims. –  Fred Nov 12 '13 at 2:17
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Why the downvote? –  Charles Koppelman Nov 12 '13 at 2:23
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Because we have a Torah-based source. Why look for sociology? –  Shmuel Brin Nov 12 '13 at 2:23

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