Why I Love Havdalah
On a recent Saturday at my synagogue, we paused in an evening program to make Havdalah. Afterwards, someone emailed me asking to learn more, pointing out that havdalah was entirely new to them, and perhaps to others as well.
We begin Shabbat with a simple ritual: we light candles, bless the fruit of the vine (a symbol of joy and holiness), bless bread (which for most Ashkenazi Jews means challah, though in other parts of the world Jews bless other forms of bread, from tortillas to naan) and in many households also bless our children. Before this ritual, it's still work-week; after the blessings are spoken and the candles are lit, we've entered into the time-apart-from-time which we call Shabbat. Havdalah is the mirror reflection of that; as those blessings began Shabbat, Havdalah is how Shabbat ends. The word havdalah means "separation."
At Havdalah, we light a braided candle with many wicks, and hold it aloft for all to see. In the most traditional paradigm no fire is kindled during Shabbat, so the striking of the match to light the havdalah candle is a powerful first sign that Shabbat is ending. We bless the fruit of the vine once more. We bless fragrant spices, and pass them around to inhale their heady scent. We bless God who separates one thing from another: separates light from dark, one community from another, the rest day of Shabbat from the six days of work. And then we extinguish the candle in the wine. With that sputter and hiss, Shabbat comes to its end.
After the candle is extinguished, many of us have the custom of singing "Eliahu HaNavi" and/or its twin song "Miriam HaNeviah," songs expressing hope for redemption. Then we might sing "Shavua Tov," wishing one another "a good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And with that, the new week begins.
I love Havdalah. It's one of my favorite rituals in Jewish practice. And it is very much a ritual, not a ceremony. What's the difference? A ceremony, such as a graduation, celebrates and makes official something which has already occurred - in the case of a graduation, it marks the fact that a student has completed a course of study. (But the course of study is complete already, whether or not the student walks across the stage to receive the diploma.) A ritual, such as Havdalah, creates a spiritual change while it is taking place.
I love Havdalah because it's the second bookend, the close-parenthesis, which balances the ritual of making Shabbat in the first place. On Friday night we light candles and bless wine; on Saturday night we bless wine and extinguish a candle. On Friday night we begin something special and sacred, and on Saturday night we bring it to its close. On Friday night we open a door, and on Saturday night we close it. We both start and finish Shabbat with mindfulness, taking a few minutes to be aware of a moment in time when something changes. Havdalah is a hinge, a fulcrum-point, balancing between the Shabbat which is ending and the new week which is beginning. We teeter at the top of the hill for a moment and then tumble down the other side.
I love Havdalah because it's so poignant. Usually the ritual is done in semi-darkness; we're supposed to be able to see three stars in the sky, so night is really falling. The day of Shabbat is coming to its end. And we gather together, sometimes standing in a circle with our arms around each other, and sing these last songs and gaze at this candle and smell the sweet spices which are meant to revive us from the impending departure of our Shabbat soul. It feels as though we're coming together to savor the last moments of Shabbat sweetness before they're gone for the week.
I love Havdalah because there are so many beautiful teachings about its additional layers of meaning. For instance: when the braided candle is held aloft, there is a custom of holding up one's hands to see the light illuminating our fingernails and our skin. The Hebrew word for light (אור) and the Hebrew word for skin (עור) are homonyms: they are both pronounced or. When we hold up our hands before the havdalah flame, we remember the teaching from the Zohar that in the world to come we will wear skins made out of light, garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life.
But most of all I love Havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine - it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.