When chai tea first became popular in the United States, I was living in Kuwait (and we only got a Starbucks the last year I was there). So when I came back to New York one summer for a visit and ordered a cup of chai tea off a menu board, the look on the barista’s face told me that I had pronounced it wrong. Very wrong.
It didn’t look like an American word, and it did look like a Hebrew word, so I pronounced it like the Hebrew word “chai.” You know, with that gutteral-sounding “ch” that begins words like “challah” and “Chanukkah.” Not, as it should have been, with the easier-going “ch” sound that starts the words “chocolate chip.” So yeah, I did not get it right.
That memory replays itself in my head pretty much every time I focus on the Hebrew word “chai,” which I did as I contemplated writing this post. The Hebrew word “chai” is a symbol of good luck in Judaism. But don’t worry about the pronunciation. If you pronounce “challah” and “Chanukkah” with the soft “h” sound, as in “hallah” and “Hanukkah,” which to my mind is perfectly fine, then pronouncing “chai” as “hai”–like Hi!– is also perfectly fine and fabulous.
The Hebrew word “chai” means “life,” and it’s become a symbol of a long life and good luck. So we drink with a “l’chaim”, “to life.”
Chai is spelled with the letters chet and yud (running right to left). In Judaism, where each Hebrew letter has a numeric value, the letter chet (or het) equals 8, and the letter yud equals 10. Together they add up to 18, so the number 18 has also come to represent long life and luck. Which is why Jews often give to charity in amounts that are multiples of 18, and why bar mitzvah boys and bat mitzvah girls, when they get monetary gifts, tend to get them in amounts that are multiples of 18.
The chai is one of the three good luck symbols that I combined to create the hamsa project for the Sew Jewish book. The other symbols are the fish and the hamsa itself. Three symbols for a trifecta of good luck!
Maria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish, available in paperback at Amazon.com and in printable PDF format in the Sew Jewish Shop.