What Does the Chai Symbol Signify for Jews?

The Hebrew "Chai" symbol of Judaism (i.e. the letters Chet-Yud or Het-Yod). This word Chai (חי) means "living" in Hebrew, and is related to the word for "life", Chaim.
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Chai (חי) is a Hebrew word and symbol that means “life,” "alive," or "living." It is spelled with the Hebrew letters Chet (ח) and Yud (י). Jews often wear a Chai on a necklace in the form of a medallion or amulet, sometimes along with a Hamsa or the most prominent symbol of the Jewish faith, the Star of David. Rings and bracelets with the symbol are also popular.

Chai is usually pronounced with a "kh" sound and rhymes with the English word "hi" or "high." 

History of the Symbol

There's no consensus about the origins of Chai as a symbolic expression of life, although use of Chai as a symbol appears to date back at least to medieval Spain, and its use as a wearable amulet was seen 18th century Eastern Europe. In medieval Kabbalah, Chai was the lowest emanation of God, lying closest to the physical plane.

The Symbolic Meaning of Chai

Judaism is a religion that emphasizes the importance of life. Jews are encouraged to be good, ethical people (mensches) and enjoy the time they are given on Earth. A common Jewish toast is “l’chaim!,” which means “to life!” It is said at celebrations in anticipation of all the good things to come.

Also featuring the word Chai is the popular Jewish phrase “am Yisrael Chai”, meaning “the people of Israel live.” The phrase is used as a kind of prayer or declaration for the long-term survival of the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

Because it means “life,” the Chai is consequently a symbol that captures an important aspect of Judaism. For Jews, Chaim (the plural form of the word) symbolizes the value of life and the hope that supports it. It also represents the will to live and serves as a reminder to the Jews to live and protect life.

According to the gematria, which is a mystical tradition that assigns a numerological value to Hebrew letters, the letters Chet (ח) and Yud (י) add up to the number 18. The Chet has a value of 8 and the Yud has a value of 10. As a result, 18 is a popular number that represents good luck. At weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events, Jews often give gifts of money in multiples of 18, symbolically giving the recipient the gift of life or luck. This manner of gift-giving is referred to as "giving Chai."

Chai in Popular Culture

A number of famous people have been known to wear Chai necklaces publicly. Elvis Presley was seen wearing one while performing near the end of his life. Similarly, retired baseball star Rod Carew wore one while playing, and Canadian rapper Drake and actress/singer Lindsay Lohan have appeared wearing a Chai necklace. 

Although jewelry is the most popular way of displaying the Chai symbol, it is not the only way. Among the many items adorned with the Chai are modern items like mugs and T-shirts, as well as traditional Jewish items like the tallits (prayer shawls) and mezuzahs (religious object that consists of a decorative case protecting a parchment). Paintings, tapestries, and other artwork also sometimes feature the Chai symbol.