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Am Israel Chai: Am Yisrael's Journey through Sorrow and Joy

Written by שי טחן, 25/12/2023


Am Israel Chai: Am Yisrael's Journey through Sorrow and Joy

Rabbi Shay Tahan


A famous story associated with this expression involves Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschitz (רבי יהונתן אייבשיץ), a Talmudist, Halachist, and Kabbalist, who held esteemed positions as the Dayan of Prague and later served as the Rabbi of the "Three Communities" comprising Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek. Due to his leadership, wisdom, and the mystique surrounding his figure, numerous legends and anecdotes became connected to him, one of which is related to the phrase we are discussing.

The legend tells of the decree by the ruler of Metz, a city in France, to expel all Jews from the city, each with a different and impossible condition. Rabbi Eibeschitz approached him and demanded the revocation of the decree. During the intense conversation that ensued, the rabbi uttered the phrase, "Am Yisrael Chai Le'olam Va'ed" ("The people of Israel live forever"), and the mayor eventually agreed to revoke the decree, but with one condition: that Rabbi Eibeschitz successfully completes a seemingly impossible task. He was to write the sentence he spoke, "Am Yisrael Chai Le'olam Va'ed," on a surface the size of a mezuzah, 45,760 times – the number of Jews in the city of Metz. At first glance, it seemed impossible without the ability to write letters the size of grains of sand.

However, to the mayor's surprise, Rabbi Eibeschitz quickly returned to his room, holding a piece of paper that testified to his completion of the task. He did it as follows: he drew a table on the paper, wrote the letter 'ע' in the center of the table, and surrounded it with the letters of the sentence in different directions on the page. This way, the sentence could be read from the page in various combinations, equaling the required number of times. The surprised ruler claimed that he needed time to verify this and temporarily postponed the expulsion decree. Only after a year did he finish counting the 45,760 repetitions, discovering that the rabbi was correct, and he finally revoked the decree.


Since the commencement of the war in Israel, the expression "Am Yisrael Chai," translating to "The people of Israel live," has gained widespread popularity. It permeates popular songs, adorns flags, and serves as a rallying cry during demonstrations in support of Israel. However, when pondering its origins, there is no definitive source. Some posit that it originates from the interaction between Joseph and his brothers when he inquired about his father's well-being, and they affirmed that he was alive. Considering Jacob's alternate name, Israel, the phrase "Israel alive" became embedded. Others suggest its roots lie in the prophecy of Yechezkel. In his vision, the prophet is commanded to prophesy over a valley filled with the bones of the dead. As he speaks, the bones come together, tendons and flesh cover them, the breath of life enters them, and they stand on their feet, a vast army. This prophetic event is a metaphor for the people of Israel:

"These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' Thus says Hashem: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel."

This prophecy anticipates the revival of Israel, even in moments when hope appears lost, and the resilience to return and start afresh seems to have dissipated. The significance of this prophecy became particularly poignant after the massacre in Israel, giving rise to the widespread use of the phrase "Am Yisrael Chai.


To better comprehend the meaning of the phrase "Am Yisrael Chai," let's delve into our Torah portion, which commences with the verse: "Vayechi Yaakov" – and Yaakov lived. The Or Hachayim raises the question of why Hashem, in the past, instructed that Yaakov should no longer be called Yaakov but Israel. Yet, we encounter many instances where he is still referred to as Yaakov. The Or Hachayim provides an answer by suggesting that Yaakov has two names, each signifying distinct states or instances in his life. When he experiences joy, he is called Israel, but in times of sadness, he is referred to as Yaakov. Consequently, the prohibition of calling him Yaakov applies only during moments of happiness.

The Or Hachayim further asserts that the descendants of Yaakov are to be consistently called Israel. However, the question arises: Why exclusively refer to them as Israel, and why not use the name Yaakov during times of sorrow? To explore this, let's trace Yaakov's journey since the sale of Yosef by his brothers. When Yaakov receives the heart-wrenching news about his son, he is overcome with devastating sadness. Chazal, however, inform us that this was divinely preplanned. Hashem needed to fulfill the decree conveyed to Avraham that his children would descend to a foreign land. Chazal explain that Yaakov was meant to be taken to Egypt in disgrace, in chains. Yet, Hashem orchestrated it differently, evolving the scenario so that Yaakov descended royally when his son Yosef, who later became the king, brought him down in regal fashion.

Another devastating story for Yaakov with a similarly positive outcome, divinely orchestrated, is the incident involving Dinah when she was violated by Shechem ben Chamor. Although this event was undoubtedly tragic, let's examine its aftermath. From this distressing occurrence, a child named Osnat was born. Osnat, disliked and disowned by her family due to her father Shechem, was sent away by Yaakov. He provided her with a chain, emphasizing her connection to the family of Yaakov Avinu, and left her near the Egyptian walls. Potifar found and adopted her. When Yosef eventually arrived in Egypt, walking amidst admirers who showered him with jewelry, Osnat was among them. The only possession she had was the chain, which she also tossed to Yosef. Upon seeing the chain and reading its words, Yosef understood her identity and promptly married her. They had two children, one of them was Ephraim, from whom Yehoshua descended. Yehoshua played a vital role as the link to continue the transmission of the Torah from Moshe to the nation. He also was the one who led the people of Israel into the land of Israel.

The underlying theme of these two stories is that the selling of Yosef set the stage for Yaakov's descent to Egypt, a step deemed necessary by Chazal to prepare the nation for receiving the Torah and entering the land of Israel. Simultaneously, the tragic tale of Dinah brought forth the leader through whom the Torah would continue and the one who would guide them into Israel, thus intertwining both events to complement each other. Now that Am Israel understands the aftermath of these stories—where Yaakov, despite his sorrow, realized that from each tragedy, Hashem brings forth salvation—they are left with a positive outlook. This understanding instills in them a sense of confidence, encapsulated in the chant "Am Yisrael Chai," where "Israel" signifies joy. This expression conveys that even in times of sadness, they maintain the belief that goodness will emerge.

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