The Chai symbol is a popular theme in Jewish jewelry. Many Jews seek to express their Jewish identity and ethnic pride by wearing it. The Chai symbol includes the Hebrew words Het and Yud, which symbolizes life, an important element in the Jewish faith. Life is such a critical part of Judaism that is permitted to commit almost any sin except for murder, adultery and idol worship in order to save a human life.
In Hebrew, many Jews proclaim “Le’chaim,” which means “to life,” at Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and other festivities in order to highlight the value of human life in Judaism. Another popular expression that incorporates the Chai symbol is “am Yisrael Chai,” which means the “Jewish nation lives.” In this way, the Chai symbol represents not only the value of human life but also the value of the national community of the Jewish nation that has existed for thousands of years and includes a prayer that the Jewish nation will continue to live in prosperity for all eternity. Thus, for many, the Chai symbol is also a sign of good luck and many Jews donate money in multiples of Chai as a symbol of life.
Within the Hebrew language, each letter has a numerical value. The numerical value for the Hebrew letters Het plus Yud adds up to 18 as Het equals 8 and Yud equals 10. Other Hebrew words that add up to 18 include "ohavi", my beloved; "aivah", a type of hatred; and "cheit", sin. A rabbi stated that the numerical value of 18 in the Chai symbol symbolizes that each one of us has the power to transform hatred into love and through teshuva (repentance), we can all transform sin into life.
However, many will be surprised to discover that the Jewish ethnic symbol known as the Chai is a relatively modern one and does not date back to antiquity. The tradition dates to the followers of Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl in the 1700’s. According to the legend, Rabbi Nahum encountered a Jewish miser and demanded that he contribute Chai rubbles for charity. The man at first reluctantly agreed and then created stumbling blocks, which prompted the rabbi to inform him that he had to donate everything that he owned. After much weeping, he agreed and turned into a great philanthropist while not actually losing any of his belongings for Rabbi Nahum did not take anything away from him even though he technically owned everything afterwards. However, by losing ownership of what he had, this Jewish person transformed from being a miser into a very generous man.
The Chai has significance for other Hassidic figures as well. Rabbi Aryeh Leib asked a father to pay Chai rubbles that added up to 324 rubles in order to cure his gravely ill daughter. The Baal Shem Tov was born on the 18th of Elul, which Hassidic Jews refer to as Chai Elul. Thus, the Chai symbol has special and unique religious significance for Hasidic Jews, although today all Jews regardless of their religious affiliation wear it with pride.