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Home » Acharei Mot

Acharei Mot Kedoshim: Chai to Life

Submitted by on April 21, 2018 – 11:08 pmNo Comment | 2,079 views

We are all familiar with chai, the Hebrew word for life. Chai has a numeric value of eighteen, which is why it is common for Jews to donate to charity in multiples of eighteen. The Talmud tells us that charity saves us from premature death.[1] When we donate in multiples of chai, the number of life, we send an unspoken prayer to G-d that our charity should extend our life – Chai to life.

Did you ever ask yourself why the Hebrew word for life has a numeric value of eighteen? In Hebrew, which is G-d’s tongue, everything is precise. Unlike human languages, which are based on convention–collective human decisions to use a particular word to describe a particular object, in Hebrew every word is thought out. Chai means life because eighteen is particularly connected with life. But why?

Life flows down from above–from the source of all life, which is G-d. Thus, we conceive of life being channeled to us from above. The Hebrew letter that connotes a channel from above to below, is Vav. It is a straight vertical line that begins at the top and extends to the bottom.

Vav has a numeric value of six. It should, therefore, follow that the number related to life should be six rather than eighteen. This only reinforces our question, why is eighteen associated with life. Why is chai rather than vav or any other word with a numeric value of six, the Hebrew word for life?

Three Columns

The answer is rooted in the very character of life. From G-d’s point of view, there is only one channel for life. It is the global vertical pipeline that begins in the heavens and extends to earth. But from our standpoint on earth, there are at least three channels of life.

A basic doctrine in Kabbalah is that G-d designed the world with three energy columns, right, left, and center. Think of your face. You have an eye on the right, an eye on the left, and a nose at the center. The nose is lower than the eyes because the middle column extends all the way to the bottom.

Surely you know people that are rigid and disciplined. You also know people that are easy going and generous. Each has their virtue. There is no denying that rigid discipline is necessary. Without discipline, we would never graduate school, hold down a job, build a career, or raise children. But think of a world with only discipline and you will quickly see the drawbacks. Can you imagine raising children on an exclusive diet of discipline without love? Can you imagine turning down every request for help because you want to motivate the destitute to repair themselves and put their lives back on track? That is a terrible way to live. So, we also need a healthy measure of generosity and kindness, tolerance and acceptance. We also need to know where to ease off and where to step back.

The column on the right, the kind and laid-back people, are helpful and necessary, but the world can’t live on them alone. The column on the left, the rigid and disciplined people, are also helpful, but the world can’t live on them either. We need a middle column, one that incorporates elements of both. Not only do we need people who are in perfect balance, we must each strive for that balance. Eccentricities are only useful on rare occasions. For everyday conduct, we seek the golden mean. The middle column.

The middle column extends lower than the right and left columns as the nose is lower than the eyes. To have a successful and sustainable impact on the world, we need a mix of right and left. Right and left are in constant tension. The middle is a successful balance that is sustainable long term.

Our sages put it like this. Oseh Shalom Bimromav, G-d makes peace on high. Gabriel the angel of fire, is at odds with Michael, the angel of water. But G-d appears and makes peace between them.  In another of our sages’ inimitable metaphors, they explained that G-d created thin glasses. He said, if I fill them with hot water, they will bust. If I fill them with cold water, they will freeze. So, He mixed hot and cold and made peace between them. The glasses survived.[2]

Six to Eighteen

Eighteen, is Vav, six, multiplied by three. There are three vertical lines. One channels the energy of generosity. One channels the energy of rigidity. And one channels the golden mean. Six would be a good number to depict life from G-d’s standpoint. But on earth, where everything is fragmented, and everyone is unique, we need a blend of three sixes. That is why chai, a multiple of eighteen, is the Hebrew word for life.


The Torah tells us that Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, passed away quite suddenly during the inauguration of the tabernacle.[3] Our sages tell us that this was in punishment for entering the tabernacle without the proper vestments. Our sages also taught that they were punished because they had no children, and in fact were not even married.[4]

We wear fancy vestments when we are among people, but when we are alone, there is no need for vestments.  Nadab and Avihu wanted to be alone with G-d. They had no desire for marriage and for child rearing. They had no patience for society. All they wanted was to melt with ecstasy, burn with passion, and exult with inner joy, as they entered the home of G-d.

When they finally entered G-d’s home and were at last alone with G-d, they thought there was no need for protocol and vestments. They could simply be themselves, soul to soul, spiritual essence to essence.

But they were mistaken. Entering the holy tabernacle is indeed an uplifting experience, but they needed to share that inspiration with the people. To do that, they would need to be mindful of the people with whom they would share that experience. They would need to wear the vestments as they exposed their soul. They would need to be grounded in earthly and family life with spouses and children. Failing to think of the people, and thinking only of themselves, was a dereliction of their priestly duty.[5]

Perhaps this is also why we give to charity in multiples of eighteen rather than six. Six is a number that connects us directly with G-d. An unfettered vertical channel from G-d to us and from us to G-d. But charity is about making a difference here on earth. And on earth, a three-pronged approach is necessary. Three columns bring us to life. Three columns make a difference to life. And three means chai, chai – to life. Am Yisrael Chai. May the Jewish people live. Amen.

[1] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Basra 10a.

[2] Or Hatorah, Vayikra, p.523.

[3] Leviticus 10:2.

[4] Vyikra Rabbah, 20:8.

[5] Likutei Sichos, 3:989.

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