Isn’t it a wonderful custom that we have? We take a small shot of whisky, say “L’Chaim” and swig it down. According to Rabbi Shraga Simmons of Aish HaTorah, the custom of saying “L’Chaim” when drinking wine is first mentioned in “Machzor Vitri” 80, s.v. “Shnayim.”
At one time, they used to give wine to the condemned so that their execution would be less painful for them – (source: “Midrash Tanchuma” Parshat Pekudei 2). Jews started to say “L’Chaim” (which means “to life”) before drinking wine to distinguish from this and to emphasize that drinking wine should be for life – (source: “Kol Boh” 25 s.v “U’B’Seudat”) and not for death. There is an ongoing discussion about the harm of drinking alcohol and the health benefits of drinking. Let’s try to sort it out.
Alcohol, or ethyl alcohol (ethanol), refers to the intoxicating ingredient found in wine, beer and hard liquor. Alcohol arises naturally from carbohydrates when certain micro-organisms metabolize them in the absence of oxygen, called fermentation. Beer, wine and other liquor contain different amounts of alcohol. The amount of alcohol in distilled liquor is known as proof. Proof refers to the amount of alcohol in the liquor; for example, 100 proof liquor contains 50% alcohol, 40 proof liquor contains 20% alcohol, and so on. Traditional wine has approximately 8-14% alcohol, while regular beer has 4-6% alcohol.
Recent studies show that moderate use of alcohol may have a beneficial effect on the coronary system. In general, for healthy people, one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men would be considered the maximum amount of alcohol consumption to be considered moderate use. (By healthy people, we are referring to non-pregnant women, individuals not addicted to alcohol, and people without pre-existing medical conditions, among others). However, the amount of alcohol that a person can drink safely is highly individual, depending on genetics, age, sex, weight and family history.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits. It may:
- Reduce your risk of developing heart disease
- Reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack
- Possibly reduce your risk of strokes, particularly ischemic strokes
- Lower your risk of gallstones
- Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes
Even so, say the people at Mayo, the evidence about the possible health benefits of alcohol isn’t certain, and alcohol may not benefit everyone who drinks. Moderate alcohol use may be of most benefit only if you’re an older adult or if you have existing risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol. If you’re a middle-aged or younger adult, some evidence shows that even moderate alcohol use may cause more harm than good. In fact, if you’re a woman and drink alcohol, talk to your doctor about taking supplemental folate to help reduce the risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol use. You can take other steps to benefit your cardiovascular health besides drinking — eating a healthy diet and exercising, for example.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if you choose to drink alcohol you do so only in moderation — up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men.
Examples of one drink include:
- Beer:12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
- Wine:5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
- Distilled spirits (80 proof):5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)
Here are other situations in which the risks of alcohol use may outweigh possible health benefits:
- You’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant
- You take medications that can interact with alcohol
- You’ve had a previous hemorrhagic stroke
- You’ve been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol abuse
- You have liver or pancreatic disease
- You have heart failure or you’ve been told you have a weak heart or dilated cardiomyopathy
- You’re planning to drive a vehicle or operate machinery
There is no question especially as Purim is upon us, that we have to be very careful about our drinking. This is something that when goes beyond the limits, can end tragically. There is always the danger of an accident, but just as dangerous is the possibility to alcohol addiction which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and cancer. Ultimately, the person would need a liver transplant to survive. The complications also include:
- Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
- Variceal hemorrhage (bleeding in the upper stomach and esophagus from ruptured blood vessels)
- Spontaneous bacterial peritonitis is a form of peritonitis (inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdomen), which is associated with ascites. Other bacterial infections are also a common complication of cirrhosis.
- Hepatic encephalopathy (damage to the brain). Impaired brain function occurs when the liver cannot detoxify harmful substances, and can lead to coma.
- Alcohol causes anemia
- Alcohol up the risks of cardiovascular disease. (A good example of how a small amount of something can be beneficial but too much of a good thing can be very detrimental).
Having a L’Chaim is wonderful. I highly recommend it and it can even be a heart-healthy thing to do. But anything beyond the moderate levels we have enumerated, are not good. Enjoying alcohol in moderation only, even in Adar, can “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”