HAVDALAH by Mark L. Berch

     For today's Dvar T'fila, I'd like to speak about Havdalah.

     Havdalah is a brief ceremony marking the end of Shabbos. Its name comes from the Hebrew word L'Havdeel, meaning to separate or distinguish. It marks the separation of Shabbos from the rest of the week.

     Havdalah is done standing, and usually with the lights dimmed or off. It begins with a short introduction, quoting some from the Book of Esther. This paragraph says, in effect, that we have, with God's help, the strength and confidence to meet the challenges of the week ahead. Havdalah then has four blessings. The first is a benediction over a beverage, normally wine. Wine is a symbol of joy and celebration, and indeed there is a custom to overflow the cup with wine, thereby to depict bountiful Divine blessings, as Psalm 23 ("My cup runneth over...") refers to. Because of this associaton with joy, some do not drink the wine during the three weeks before Tisha B'Av. There is also the curious custom to put wine on the eyelids, or behind the ears. The Sephardic version is behind the ears, in back of the neck, over the eyes or in the pockets. I have never seen any of this dabbing actually done, and I'd be .......... hesitant to recommend this be done in the presence of children.

     Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg sees this blessing as having a special role. A blessing over wine sanctifies the time which follows. Thus, a Shabbos eve Kiddush blesses the upcoming Shabbos. So, he says, "Jews sanctify the weekday over a Havdalah cup of wine and enter into its holy doing. The workweek has a sacred calling: To work in, and perfect the world... The one who recites Havdalah witnesses to the human role in perfecting and co-creating the world."

     The second is a blessing over spices. In a sense, this is the last blessing of Shabbos. This is the only place in Judaism when aromatics are used ritually. The origin of this custom was already lost by the time the Talmud was written. Some believe that when a Jew keeps Shabbos, he or she gains an extra Shabbos soul, which gives a person heightened spiritual sensitivity. When Shabbos ends, this soul departs, and the sweet spices ease the loss. Others point to the fact that smell is considered the most spiritual of the senses, that fragrance gives pleasure, not to the body, but to the soul. Any aromatic mixture may be used. A common Ashkenazic custom is to use cloves, Bay leaves or other pickling spices. Sephardic communities use Rosewater, myrtle, lemon or mint, and the precise wording of the Sephardic Havdalah depends on whether it comes from a tree, from an herb, or neither. The Zohar specifies myrtle. Spices are usually held in a spice box, and artists have created a marvelous variety of these.

     The third blessing is over the light of the Havdalah candle flame, which is lit just before the ceremony starts. This is a braided candle, used for no other purpose. It is said to symbolize the unity found at the end of Shabbos. For example, mystics see the female principle dominant on Friday night, the male principle dominant Saturday morning, and the two are united at the end of Shabbos. Thus, there are separate fires for each wick, but, unlike at Hanukkah, there is just one blaze of flame. The fire represents physical creativity avoided during Shabbos but now available again, and so this is the first blessing of the new week. This blessing thus asserts the sacredness of work itself. Fire can be seen as symbolic of man's ability to escape the physical limitations of the natural world, and reshape the world. There is also a custom of holding the curled fingers up to the light. Some say it is to see the shadows of the fingers on the Palm, so as to observe the distinction between light and dark. Others say that the fingernails, with their unceasing growth, are viewed as a symbol of the upcoming week's prosperity. If such a candle is unavailable, two candles with flames touching may be used, and some authorities permit the use of the flames of the hearth or the stove. Halaha decrees that the light must be bright enough to distinguish foreign currency.

     Lastly, there is a blessing of God, who makes distinctions, who separates, finally, the day of rest from the six days of work, who separates the holy from the ordinary. If a Holiday directly follows Shabbos the wording is changed slightly, since a Holiday is not "ordinary."

     Thus, while Havdalah ends Shabbos, it is a ceremony which very much faces the upcoming week.

     The blessings are arranged in a clear sequence. It can be viewed as a rising, from the lips for the wine, to the nose, the eyes and finally to the brain. Or it can be viewed as a matter of increasing refinement. The wine must actually be consumed, but the spices need only be brought near, and the candle need not even be close, and the realization that Shabbos is over doesn't require the senses at all.

     At the end, the candle is customarily doused in the wine, to indicate, some say, that the candle was lit for the purpose of Havdalah.

     There are some variations depending on circumstances. Spices are not used when a festival follows Shabbos, as the festival itself provides the delight. Authorities disagree on whether spices should be used when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbos. If Tisha B'Av follows Shabbos, neither wine nor spices are proper, and indeed, the Shulkhan Arukh tells us to read Lamentations by the light of Havdalah candle, a rare example of a ritual candle being given a utilitarian role. Practices vary as to whether the Havdalah candle or the Hanukah candles are lit first. If for any reason Havdalah is not recited on Saturday night, it can be said anytime until Tuesday night, albeit without the blessing on spices or light.

     Afterward it is traditional to sing and the modern custom is often to hold hands or lock arms in a circle. This gives Havdalah a kind of group solidarity not often seen in Jewish ritual. People may sing Hamavdil, or just its first verse, and Shavuah Tov, and usually end with Eliyahu Hanavee. Elijah the Prophet represents the Messiah, who by tradition will not come on Shabbos, since Shabbos is itself a taste of the world to come. With Shabbos over, we can again look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Some add additional verses to the song for Miriam Hanaveeah, Miriam the Prophet.

     For those of you looking to add a bit more Jewish ritual into your life, Havdalah is an enchanting choice. It's short, sweet, and very sensual. It is rich with spiritual themes. And it clearly, but gently, engenders the feeling that Shabbos is over.


Given at Tifereth Israel Congregation, Washington, D.C., on December 6, 1997.
Copyright 1998 Mark L. Berch