L’Chaim! What the Rebbe Says About It

Is drinking mashke chasidish? What is the limit of four keleshkes about? Are there exceptions? The Derher magazine sheds clarity on this important topic.

By Derher.org

L’chaim is a bit of a confusing topic. On the one hand, it is the most stereotypical Chassidishe practice to say a bit of l’chaim on special occasions. Stories and anecdotes abound of Chassidim warming themselves up and getting into the farbrengen mood with a l’chaim…

The Rebbe himself gave out bottles of mashke at farbrengens and during kos shel bracha, and sent bottles of mashke with many shluchim for distribution at their destinations. The Rebbe personally wished l’chaim to individuals at farbregnens, occasionally specifying the amount a person should drink.

Yet—we all know that the Rebbe said not to drink more than four small keleshkes (small shots) of mashke. In other words, you can say l’chaim—but not to the point of intoxication or even blurred judgment.

So which is it? If the loosening effect of mashke is good for farbrengens, why is there the hard limit of four keleshkes? And if it is not a positive thing, why isn’t it prohibited like any other synthetic high from substances?

Unfortunately, there are many people who cannot overcome this paradox. For some, the limit of four keleshkes feeds into the notion that alcohol is a harmful substance that must be frowned upon and banned from Chassidishe circles and yeshivos. For others, the opposite is true: The limit of four is popularly referred to as “the gzeira, the decree”—a term which the Rebbe rarely used, if ever—and is often understood as such: a super-rational decree that is (hopefully) followed.

As we will see below, neither is true.

Why We Say L’chaim

But first, why do we drink mashke? Why is it that saying l’chaim has an undeniable place in the Chassidishe lifestyle?

The Rebbeim offered several reasons for the custom of saying l’chaim at farbrengens:

  1. Before shechita, water is given to the animal to smoothen the lung or to thin-out the skin. Similarly, the mashke works to soften the nefesh habahamis and make it more eidel This was perhaps the reason most often given.
  2. Mashke is like sota-water, cleansing the nefesh.
  3. Chazal say, גדולה לגימה שמקרבת—drink brings people together. We are prohibited to drink the wine of a non-Jew because we are concerned that it will cause closeness and familiarity, eventually leading to Jews marrying non-Jews. How much more so does it cause closeness amongst Yidden themselves.
  4. It opens the nefesh haElokis and brings joy to a person.

The Dark Side Of Mashke

But there is a flipside. The Rebbeim, particularly the Frierdiker Rebbe, would often speak about the dangers of mashke.

Chassidim of old would consider it “accursed waters” and “a disgusting thing (דבר המאוס), —a term that the Rebbe quoted countless times. It causes a person to burn with a “foreign fire,” and awakens one’s animalistic urges. Used in the wrong way, it causes a person to become despicable and low. According to Kabbalah one should refrain from drinking alcohol altogether, due to the negative effect it has on the mind. There was even a time that people would make kiddush on challah instead of wine.

A Dangerous Tool

Thus, mashke is a legitimate and important tool—but it can easily become dangerous when used in the wrong context. 

The Rebbeim would speak to this paradoxical nature of mashke.

“By Chassidim, a farbrengen is one of the foundations of the ways of Chassidus,” the Frierdiker Rebbe says. “And a farbrengen is done with a bit of mashke. But, for a Chossid, the mashke itself must be out of the question.”

“Mashke is disgusting (דבר המאוס),” the Rebbe said in another sicha. “Which is why we only have it on special occasions, but on the other hand we see that mashke can actually be something lofty.”

“The Rebbeim completely negated over-drinking, which is referred to as ‘drunk’ and ‘wildness,’” the Rebbe writes in a letter. “But drinking in the way of Torah, in the sweet ways of Chassidus—aderaba ve’aderaba.”

Chassidim were encouraged to say l’chaim, but with strong limitations—and the less the better. “On the one hand, one must take mashke, because it helps. On the other hand, the less one takes the better it is… Today, the uftu is that taking a little bit can have a great effect.” L’chaim should be taken in a farbrengen context—but only if the person isn’t taking it for the physical reasons, chas veshalom—to get drunk. And drinking mashke or wine not in the farbrengen context, “like a baalebos” with meat (or fish)—that is completely out of the question.

The Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe would tell of various Chassidim who would pour themselves some mashke at the beginning of the farbrengen—and pour it all back into the bottle at the night’s end. One Chossid, Reb Hendel Kugel (from Plenshitz) would sell the same bottle of mashke to the goy every year before Pesach.

Mashke or Vodka?

Reb Naftali Kraus was a Lubavitcher Chossid and a journalist, who once wrote about his amazing experience of Simchas Torah 5736 by the Rebbe for the Israeli Maariv newspaper, and he mentioned that the Rebbe had given a bottle of vodka for the staff of the newspaper. A few days later, he was told that the Rebbe was looking for him.

“I have to admit that I was very shocked,” he said. “Did I do something wrong that the Rebbe is calling me?”

The Rebbe was sitting with the article open on the table. Smiling broadly, the Rebbe gave him a yasher koach for the article. Then the Rebbe continued, “Why did you have to write ‘vodka’? Why not ‘mashke’?”

He later related: “In my mind, I was thinking ‘Should I now go into an explanation that in modern Israel, ‘mashke’ can refer to any drink, not only hard drinks? But it seems that the Rebbe read my thoughts.”

The Rebbe continued to explain that when the term “vodka” is used, it can sound like this is a place that people go wild. As a “tikkun,” to correct the damage from what was written, the Rebbe gave him dollars for the entire staff of the newspaper.

This Is Mockery

In an article for a certain Chabad publication, a Chossid began his article with (what he thought was) a cute vort: The Midrash tells us that gold was created only for the Beis Hamikdash; so too, mashke was made only for the Chassidim, as drinking a bit of mashke is one of the darkei haChassidus, the ways of Chassidus.

The Rebbe added the source for the Midrash about gold:

(ב״ר [=בראשית רבה] טז,ב)

Then the Rebbe addressed his actual vort:

ליצנות – ומהו החיבור לדרז״ל להבדיל

This is mockery. What is the connection to the words of our sages, lihavdil.

On his assertion that this is one of the ways of Chassidus, the Rebbe wrote:

המקור ע״ז בדברי נשיאי החסידות?! ועיין בלקו״ד תשיט סע״ב.

What is the source for this in the words of the Nesi’im of Chassidus?! Look in Likkutei Dibburim p. 719 at the end of amud beis.

The Limit

Mashke was always a complicated subject, and it is up to the individual to determine if he can drink a little mashke like a Chossid, rather than drinking vodka like a drunkard.

In 5723, the Rebbe announced that he was instituting an official limit on the acceptable amount of mashke: from now people could drink no more than three small keleshkes. The Rebbe emphasized that this included all situations and scenarios—farbrengens at all times of the year as well as weddings. Kiddush should be made only on wine, not mashke (and when one realizes that mashke is truly disgusting, it will no longer be optimal for kiddush from a halachic perspective.)

As the Rebbe would later elaborate, this is the amount of mashke that could be useful in avodas Hashem. If someone has the urge to drink more than that, it has nothing to do with holiness; he wants to drink alcohol like the people on the street. Mashke is sometimes used to remove the growth in the lung—but if you drink over the limit, halevai it doesn’t cause new growths…

This wasn’t a suggestion; even if you need to “break yourself” in order to listen, this is what the Rebbe expects. “You will be able to farbreng for many hours,” the Rebbe said, “and it is guaranteed that it will not take away from your avoda at all.” If you truly wish, even a tiny drop will suffice for the purposes of nefesh haElokis—and if not, then even an entire barrel will not. Instead, drink your fill with the wine of Torah, Chassidus!

The Rebbe did not apply the limitation to those older than forty (although he often said that they should adhere to it as well).

When discussing the limitation on mashke, the Rebbe usually simply repeated the words of the Frierdiker Rebbe that mashke is despicable—often adding that the Frierdiker Rebbe’s sichos were much sharper than his own. But in one letter, written to a Russian Chossid years before the official limit was instituted, the Rebbe said that there were several reasons why mashke should be drunk less than in the past: 1) Now that there are so many sichos and maamarim that are easy to understand, an abundance of mashke is not needed to have the desired effect. 2) Now there is a great emphasis on spreading Chassidus among the wider Jewish world, and the behavior of drinking a lot of mashke can hurt these efforts.

The Frierdiker Rebbe once said that “Now I am always like after a bit of mashke.” In those years, his health prohibited him from drinking mashke, but the deeper reason for his inability to say l’chaim was because he was “always like after a bit of mashke.” As Chassidim, we are pulled after our Rebbe, and we no longer require the actual mashke.

There Are No Excuses

Over the years, the Rebbe would speak about the limitation over and over again—often noting that people had begun to become lax in it—and reiterating that it had never been weakened and would stand forever. The year that the limit was instituted was 5723, and the Rebbe would go on to speak about it all through the 5720s, the 5730s, the 5740s, and the 5750s. (The only noticeable difference was that at one point it changed from three keleshkes to four.)

He often emphasized that he meant it without any games: the limit was four (or three) keleshkes—small ones, not big or even medium sized cups, so that the total amount of mashke wouldn’t exceed a revi’is (or the majority of a revi’is). The Rebbe spoke unusually emphatically about the subject, especially against those who encouraged others to drink.33 He went through every excuse that people would make for themselves and dismissed them one by one.

It has been nullified by now: “There are some people who want to convince themselves that the limitation on mashke has already been nullified… It must therefore be reiterated that it applies fully, forever.”

It is the Rebbe’s duty to say it, but he doesn’t really mean it: “As we’ve said many times, I mean it simply, without p’shetlach, drashos and remazim. People shouldn’t say that I have the duty to speak about it, and the listener must act to the contrary…”

There are bigger issues out there: “… [People say] that there are bigger areas in which they don’t obey—but they should know that this isn’t a small thing. To the contrary: This is the even habochen (“measuring stick”) of a person’s hiskashrus, whether he is holding onto the kliamke [lit. the Rebbe’s doorknob; i.e. connected to the Rebbe] … All the chochmelach and p’shetlach are meaningless. The Rebbe said that mashke is disgusting, and he wanted his words to be published. If it wasn’t so bad, why would he say that it should be published? Obviously it is important, and relevant for generations.”

But this is the only way that I can farbreng! There are some talmidim who consider themselves shpitz Chabad—through doing the opposite of this directive! They use out the fact that they are learning in Tomchei Temimim to do the opposite of nessi doreinu’s directive! How is it possible that a person will have a better understanding in Chassidus through doing something against the directive of nessi doreienu?!… When you use a perek Tanya, maamar Chassidus, or chassidishe pisgam to fulfill the will of the yetzer hara and drink mashke, it is like taking the head of the king and putting his face into the place of the yetzer hara!

This behavior doesn’t help a person overpower coarseness of the body: to the contrary, it is strengthening the coarseness of the body! Those who say that it helps their avoda—they are dressing it in a zaidene zupetze (a silk kapota, i.e. glorifying a bad thing), and they even say that it’s what the Rebbe wants! “Obviously the [extra] keleshke won’t help to remove the ‘growths on the lung,’ especially since he is convincing himself that even though we spoke in public not to drink more than three—he is a sam sapoznik, he is his own man, and he can show a kuntz: he will take four, five, six, seven, eight, until he can no longer count, for he is under the table!”

“[Getting drunk and] confused is the opposite of seder, order; the opposite of holiness, and, most importantly for us, contrary to the will of the nessi doreinu. If you fool yourself into thinking that with one more drink you will become higher than knowledge, the truth is that you are simply becoming confused, contrary to the will of nessi doreinu.”

Did The Rebbe Ever Nullify The Limit?

נבהלתי לכתבו ע“ד השמועה בשמי שכאילו שניתי והקלתי בנוגע למשקה. ופשוט אשר והענין בתקפו עומד, ובצנעא חמור עוד יותר.

I was shocked to read that there is a rumor in my name that, as if to say that I have changed and become lenient regarding mashke. Obviously it is fully applicable, and in private it is an even greater concern.

They Aren’t My Shluchim

On 2 Sivan 5728, the Rebbe called the mazkirus and the directors of Tzach for a yechidus. The Rebbe said that he had heard that people had again begun to become lax on the limit of mashke. “Everyone has the choice to do as they wish, contrary to my request,” the Rebbe said. “But regarding tahalucha on Shavuos, which is my shlichus—I am asking you to relay the message that anyone who does not follow the takanos regarding mashke are not my shluchim.”

The Rebbe went on to say that this did not apply to mivtza tefillin, which is a din in Shluchan Aruch, but to matters that were his shlichus: tahalucha on Shavuos, Merkos Shlichus in the summer, and tahalucha on Simchas Torah. It applied to bochurim, yungerleit and older people.

The Rebbe added that there was no k’peida regarding the past, chas veshalom, and anyone who would take upon themselves to follow the takana in the future—then he was asking them to be his shluchim.

Tzach sent out a letter relaying the Rebbe’s message, which was edited by the Rebbe.

Making Kiddush On Mashke

“נבהלתי להסברא לקדש על יי“ש, ועכ“פ לקדש את שתית היי“ש – היפך הגמור מציווי כ“ק מו“ח אדמו“ר נשיא דורנו. ובודאי תיכף לקבלת מכ‘ ינקטו באמצעים הכי מוחלטים לתיקון כ“ז. ויבש“ט בזה בחוזר. פשוט שכל הנ“ל מכוון לכאו“א מהם שנהג כנ“ל.”

“I was shocked at the notion to make kiddush on mashke, and at least to make holy the drinking of mashke—in direct contradiction to the command of my father-in-law, the Rebbe nessi doreinu. Certainly, as soon as you receive this letter you will take direct measures to resolve this. You should have good news in the reply-mail. Obviously this applies to each and every one who behaved this way”.

Who Does The Limitation Apply To?

The Rebbe said this applied to everyone—but especially to bochurim. Even someone who isn’t a bochur, the Rebbe said, “still shouldn’t krich and do something against the opinion and will of the Rebbeim. How much more so that he is a student in yeshiva, and he is therefore not his own boss: the Rebbeim are completely the baalebatim over him. He is a ben and eved, a son and servant, to the Rebbeim.”

Just as Aharon Hakohen transmitted Hashem’s message that the Kohanim who served in the Beis Hamikdash were prohibited from drinking alcohol, the Moshe Rabbeinu of our generation transmits to us the command that we are not to drink alcohol—especially bochurim who are a kingdom of Kohanim. The Rebbe mentioned that this was especially applicable to bochurim since they are in their yimei hachamimus. Women are not to drink mashke at all, according to the Gemara, and the Rebbe therefore said to mix the mashke for them with water.

As mentioned, the Rebbe did not apply the limitation to those over 40, and over the years, he mentioned several reasons for this:

  1. The Gemara says that until 40 eating is good for a person, whereas after 40 drinking is good.
  2. After 40 people have already reached an understanding of their teacher, and they no longer are under this limit from the Rebbe.
  3. At 40, one’s mind is more calm and tranquil.

What About Mashpi’im And Roshei Yeshivos?

In a sicha, the Rebbe addressed the notion that the limit does not apply to mashpi’im and roshei yeshivos: “There are those who believe that this doesn’t apply to him, because he’s a rosh yeshiva, a mashpia, or a mashgiach. He drinks mashke so that he can serve Hashem not only with his revealed kochos… but with his hidden kochos… But the truth is that er veist nit vu er halt af der velt, he has no idea where he’s holding. There’s no greater folly than the fact that he believes himself to be wise…”

When Does It Apply?

The limitation applies at all times of the year. In the original sicha, the Rebbe said that he wasn’t including Purim in the limitation, but it was quickly included.

“I am emphasizing that I actually mean it, in this physical world, and to every single person,” the Rebbe said at one farbrengen. “This applies on both Shabbos and Yom Tov; on Yud-Beis Tammuz, Yud-Tes Kislev, Simchas Torah, and Purim… anything related to a farbrengen has the limitation of three keleshklach. This is besides for the obligation of four cups by the seder, or kiddush and havdalah.” Even during kiddush, one shouldn’t finish the entire cup, and the same is true when drinking the four cups at the Moshiach’s seuda on Achron Shel Pesach.

There were various occasions when people felt that the lack of mashke was hurting them, and the Rebbe was even asked to give dispensations.

At one of the Sukkos meals in the Frierdiker Rebbe’s home, Rashag said to the Rebbe that that the baalei batim needed mashke in order to be joyful on simchas beis hashoeva: “The bochurim can be joyful through inebriating themselves with the wine of the Torah [Chassidus]. But what about the baalei batim?”

“That is not a strong argument,” the Rebbe replied. “The baalei batim can study as well!”

On the following night, Rashag said that the bochurim were asking for a special dispensation to drink more for simchas beis hashoeva.

“What can I do?” the Rebbe said. “It’s a clear Rambam!”

“And what about the yungerleit?” the Rashag asked.

This time, the Rebbe answered sharply: “Shlep mir nisht beim tzung, Don’t pull my tongue!

“Rabbi Gourarie was by me a few days ago, and he told me that Reb Gronem would farbreng in a manner that the participants didn’t drink at all—and even the one farbrengening hardly drank. One shot glass stood on the table, and it wasn’t even always finished. The main thing was that it had its effect!”

Tikkunim

What should someone do if they went over the limit? The Rebbe mentioned that one is obligated to do teshuva for this. The following are several examples of tikkunim, “spiritual fixes” the Rebbe gave to people who asked:

  1. To convince one or two other people to follow the limit.
  2. To take upon oneself not to go over it in the future, and to study Iggeres Hateshuva by heart.

The Exceptions

As mentioned, although the limit was strict, the Rebbe did not hesitate to utilize the positive aspects of mashke: saying l’chaim to people at farbrengens, sending mashke with shluchim, and so on. In fact, there were several times over the years when the Rebbe announced that the limit was temporarily lifted. For example:

In 5724, Shiva Assar B’Tammuz fell out on Shabbos Balak, and the farbrengen that week was long remembered. It lasted almost the entire long (summer) afternoon, and the Rebbe was in very good spirits, saying l’chaim and instructing others to do the same. At one point, the Rebbe said: We should now say a l’chaim on wine which brings joy, thereby bringing about the transformation of Shiva Assar B’Tammuz to be a joyous day. We will suspend the general limitation of not drinking more than four l’chaims, for the time being.”

With that, the Rebbe turned to many of those present and indicated that they should say l’chaim on a full cup. Everyone immediately began to say l’chaim and almost all the wine and mashke in the area was finished.

Other dates when the Rebbe removed the limit include Purim 5724, Purim 5726; Shabbos Bereishis 5729; Simchas Torah 5730, and more.

Hashem Is Constantly Saying L’chaim!

It’s interesting to note that although the concept of saying “l’chaim” is usually connected with a drink of l’chaim, the Rebbe once explained that the two are not necessarily dependent on one another:

In 5748, Simchas Torah occurred on a Friday, and the Rebbe held a shorter farbrengen, concluding around shkia. An announcement was made that everyone should hurry up and say l’chaim, because soon the opportunity to say l’chaim will be over. Hearing this, the Rebbe corrected the gabbai and explained that although we will not be able to drink l’chaim, we certainly will still be able to say l’chaim.

In a lengthy sicha that followed, the Rebbe explained how Hashem Himself is constantly saying l’chaim: giving life to all the worlds through His word. And it is our job to emulate His ways and say l’chaim to one another—always offering brachos (and of course tangible assistance) to our fellow Jews.

May the bracha of l’chaim indeed manifest, along with all the explanation and meaning of the word, for each and every Yid, and for the entire world!

This article is featured in the Menachev-Av Chasidishe Derher Magazine. To subscribe visit derher.org.

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