You may have seen it on the necks of many Jewish women. Men wear it, too. The Chai necklace conveys such a simple message. In English it sounds quite hippieish, a don’t-worry-be-cool Epicurean eat drink and be happy for tomorrow we die sort of thing. I mean, imagine if you wore a necklace that said “Live.” Not in the sense of “Live performance,” or “Live Action News Ultra Mega Whopping 24-hour Coverage,” but in the sense of “Live Long and Prosper.”

You see? In English it’s not even certain what word you’d be wearing around your neck. You’d have to put it in context for everyone, wear a sign on your shirt with a sentence indicating how you’d like your necklace to be pronounced. It would get annoying.

In Hebrew it’s a lot sharper and pronounceable in only one way, which is predominantly why Chai necklaces come only in Hebrew. Chai. ??. Two letters, not merely a wish, but rather a command. A command to live, and not just pass the time, not just get by, a directive to figure out what you’re doing here, why, what to do about it, and live accordingly. The nagging questions of existence, don’t duck away from them, says the Chai Necklace. Figure them out and live. It will take a lifetime.

Why did the Jews start wearing this necklace? Sociology is not an exact science, but my guess is it comes from the Levitical imperative to, “live by the commandments.” In Hebrew, “??? ???.” The Rabbis ask, “Well, duh. What else are we supposed to do by the commandments?” The Talmud has a word for “duh.” It’s called “?????,” or “obviously.” The legal answer they give is that “living by them” means “don’t die by them.” Don’t sacrifice your life for religion’s sake. With the exception of murder, idol worship, sexual immorality, and times of national persecution, one’s own life comes first. This imperative has been absorbed into the national Jewish consciousness as a propelling force driving Jews forward wherever they are, keeping them going.

The world has never seemed to soak in the historical reality of the Jewish people, always wondering why they’re still around and what they’re still doing here and what’s in store for them next. They blame it on God, usually, at least the religious ones do. The others just scratch their heads and proceed to stop thinking about it because it makes their collective brains hurt.

Be that as it may, we can take a hint from the Chai necklace. Judaism commands us to live. Does not let us step back or give up. Supernatural explanations aside, if you’ve seen the Chai symbol around, and no doubt you’ve seen it everywhere, you’ll come to realize the strength of the collective subconscious of the Jewish nation. A nation commanded to live will continue to do so, through anything history throws at it. This two letter necklace is but an echo of that national resolve.