Chai (symbol)

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Chai (Hebrew: חַי‎ "living" ḥay) is a Hebrew word that figures prominently in modern Jewish culture; the Hebrew letters of the word are often used as a visual symbol.

It is not an ancient Jewish symbol, originating in stories from 18th century Eastern Europe and being first used in amulets from the mid 20th century.[1]


The word is made up of two letters of the Hebrew alphabet - Chet (ח) and Yod (י), forming the word "chai," meaning "alive," or "living." The most common spelling is "Chai", but the word is occasionally also spelled "Hai". The usual modern pronunciation of this word is [χai̯], while a transcription of the Biblical and Mishnaic pronunciation would have likely been [ħai̯] (with a pharyngeal consonant).

Numerological associations[edit]

There have been various mystical numerological speculations about the fact that, according to the system of gematria, the letters of chai add up to 18 (see "Lamedvavniks" etc.). For this reason, 18 is a spiritual number in Judaism, and many Jews give gifts of money in multiples of 18 as a result.

In Jewish culture[edit]

Maccabia medals with Chai symbol

The Chai symbol can be worn by Jews as a medallion around the neck, similarly to other Jewish symbols, such as the Star of David and the Hamsa.

In Hebrew, the related word chaya means "living thing" or "animal", and is derived from the Hebrew word chai (חי), meaning "life".

Jews often give gifts and donations in multiples of 18, which is called "giving chai". Mailings from Jewish charities usually suggest the amounts to give in multiples of chai (18, 36, 54, dollars, etc.) rather than the usual multiples of 25.

It appears in the slogan "ʿam yisraʾel ḥay!" (עַם יִשְרָאֵל חַי, "The people of Israel lives!").[2]

It is heard in a BBC recording from April 20, 1945 of Jewish survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp five days after their liberation. This was the first Sabbath ceremony openly conducted on German soil since the beginning of the war, with people still dying around them, singing what would become the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah. At the end of Hatikvah, British Army Chaplain Leslie Hardman shouts out, "Am Yisrael Chai, The children of Israel still liveth!" [3]

In the Eurovision Song Contest 1983, which was held in Germany four decades after Shoah, Israel was represented with a song called Chai performed by Ofra Haza which included the line Am Yisra'el chai.

In Johannesburg (South Africa), there is an English language Jewish radio station called Chai FM.[4]

Chai jewelry[edit]

Chai pendant

Elvis Presley wore a Chai necklace while performing toward the end of his life.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Exploring 'Chai' Culture, Jewish Daily Forward, 2012
  2. ^ Aish: Am Yisrael Chai -- The Eternal Nation: (MP3 file) - A vocal recording by Jewish singer, Sam Glaser of the traditional Jewish song]
  3. ^, original Site with Newspaper Article (Hebrew)
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Elvis' Jewish Heritage", Elvis Presley News, 2007. Retrieved February 10, 2008. Note photograph of Elvis performing with Chai necklace toward the bottom of the page.