top of page

Thoughts on Havdalah

Some time back I wrote about the havdalah paragraph inserted into the opening weekday blessing of the Saturday night Amidah, the one that begins “Atah chonein la-adam da’at.”  “You graciously endow human beings with knowledge.” (translation of Lev Shalem prayerbook). After adding that paragraph of “Ata chonantanu” in the evening service, we officially have pronounced that Shabbat has ended and we may proceed to do various types of labor forbidden on the day of rest afterwards.  However, we also have a second havdalah incorporated into a more elaborate ceremony that may be performed in the synagogue or at home either at the end of the service or when we get home.  It is referred to as “Havdalah al hakos,” the havdalah prayer said over a cup [of wine, generally  Though wine is preferable one may use grape jucie or other beverages, including coffee or tea as well as other “adult beverages.”.


Those who have gone to Jewish camps or participated in various youth groups may recall some additional readings or special ceremonies that accompanied the traditional text in those contexts.  I recall a ceremony where candles were passed out to many teens who spread out around a swimming pool and watched the flames reflected in the water as the leader chanted the prayers.  Someone else used to pour whiskey into a large bowl of water and when it came time to extinguish the candle, stuck it into the alcohol and a big flame shot up to mark the end of the ceremony.  In my first congregation in Dallas, havdalah was recited out in the hall, in front of the chapel where a large tarp was spread and everyone held a lighted havdalah candle during the ceremony and we sang a verse from a seldom used prayer in the siddur, beginning “KI b’simcha teitzeiun...”.  At our rabbinic retreat each year at Wildacres in North Carolina, we can’t begin havdalah until one of my Reform colleagues takes his guitar and leads us in a chorus or two of “MahYafeh Hayom, Shabbat Shalom.”


Some liberal prayerbooks where havdalah at one time did not even appear, in more recent times have provided lovely introductions either setting the tone for the end of Shabbat or simply explaining the symbolism of the ritual items used in the prayer.  So in poet Marcia Falk’s “Book of Blessings,” she writes, “The arc of evening slowly turning, the sun’s blue shadows washed away, the gate still opens as three stars wait to pierce the sky, in the corridor where night bares its maze you begin to begin again.” The three stars refer to the heavenly sign that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week, when “we begin to begin again.”


In the Reform “Gates of Prayer” as well as in its prayerbook for home use one can find one of two versions of the havdalah ceremony, the second of which I have occasionally used for synagogue functions or to begin an evening bar or bat mitzvah party before the band begins to play.  It includes not only the traditional prayers, but responsive readings and introductory passages explaining this ritual to those who may not be familiar with it.  The more recent “Mishkan Tefillah” also has some interesting readings accompanying this ritual.  The Conservative “Lev Shalem” places its readings not in the center of the page, but in the sidebars, where you will find several meditations and thoughts for the end of Shabbat as well.


There is some debate among our ancient sages as to whether havdalah may be considered an obligation from the Torah or simply a rabbinic tradition by the ancient sages.  The fourth commandment of the famous Ten begins “Zachor et yom haShabbat l’kodsho.” “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”  The sages tell us, “Zochreihu al hayayin.”  “Remember it over wine.” As I mentioned in my piece on the kiddush some time back, from this we learn that one should make kiddush over a cup of wine, thereby setting Shabbat apart from the preceding weekdays.  The rabbis teach as well that we need to separate the holy day on the other end from the days ahead as we begin the secular week.  Hence once again we take up a cup of wine to recite havdalah.


“Havdalah” means separation, making a distinction.  It seems that most of Jewish life revolves around making distinctions.  The first prayer recited aloud in the birchot hashachar, the morning blessings, praises God, “asher natan lasechvi vinah l’havchin bein yom uvein lailah,” who gave the sechvi (variously translated as “the rooster,””the bird,” or “the heart” the understanding to distinguish between day and night.”  In the book of Leviticus after giving laws of kashruth and of various matters of ritual purity and impurity, we find the instructions, “V’hivdaltem, you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean...which I have set apart, “asher hivdalti” for you to treat as unclean. You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart, v’avdil, from other peoples to be mine.”  The same root as “havdalah” appears three times in this passage.  So we see that God separates various things, particularly we noted that in the opening portion of B’reishit, a couple of weeks ago.  There He separated light from darkness, the upper waters of heaven from the lower waters down here, and the dry land from the waters.  Though He clearly sets Shabbat apart from the other days, we do not find this same verb of separation with reference to Shabbat.  We do see it separating the people of Israel from other nations and separating holy or pure (“clean”) things from impure (“unclean”) secular things.


Naturally, in the Talmud we find some discussion on the proper wording of the havdalah blessing, the order of the blessings, and other such matters.  The sages suggested that we mention between three and seven different havdalot, separations, in our prayer even though Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah was satisfied with just one.  The School of Shammai differs with the School of Hillel over whether one should say the blessing for spices, besamim prior to the blessing for light or fire or in reverse order.  The School of Shammai also wanted to speak of the light or fire in the singular while the School of Hillel used the plural.  As usual, we follow the practice of the School of Hillel.


Lighting a fire or a multi-wicked candle (in a pinch, two candles can be held together) is not only a sign that Shabbat has ended and we may once again perform acts of labor such as lighting a fire, but it is also a reminder of the creation of light on the first day of creation.  The spices (or in some Sephardic traditions myrtle twigs) provide a pleasant fragrance and not only serve to remind us to carry the spirit of Shabbat on into the new week, but some believe that the Neshamah Yeterah, the additional soul which each Jew receives on Shabbat departs at havdalah and the besamim are intended to revive us after this loss. When we say the prayer over the candle, the fire, we extend our hands toward the flame, with our fingers bent inward and thereby utilize the flame to cast a shadow into the palm of our hands.  Some claim that this additional soul departs the body and its final departure is through the finger tips which we observe as we say this blessing. Others say use the candle to note the havdalah, the separation, between the fingernail and the skin of our fingers.


Prior to the blessings over wine, spices, and candle, as well as the final havdalah blessing, it is customary at home to add a series of verses, mostly from Psalms, but also from other biblical books, that speak of redemption, for at the end of Shabbat we look for the arrival of Elijah the Prophet who would not show up on Shabbos, but may come right afterwards heralding the messianic redemption.  As often happens with such florilegia, to use the technical term for a bunch of miscellaneous verses, we hear echoes of one verse carried over into the next.  Words are repeated and ideas recur until we get to the four blessings that conclude the ceremony.


You can find the ceremony on the Temple B’nai Israel webpage and there I have included music files in case you’d like to chant the prayers to a traditional melody.  So let’s take a closer look at the havdalah ritual.  Following any preliminaries as mentioned above, we fill a wine cup to the brim or overflowing as an indication that we pray for overflowing blessings upon us.  “My cup runneth over” as we say in the 23rd Psalm.  We set the besamim container nearby or someone else holds onto it.  We place the multi-wicked havdalah candle in its holder or, again, someone else can hold it and we light the wicks to create a torch-like effect as we prepare to begin.  


The leader begins chanting the verses of havdalah.  Unlike Kiddush, either on Friday night or Saturday lunch, there is no obvious biblical passage to read prior to the blessings, so we turn first to the book of Isaiah for words of redemption.  From chapter 12, we take two verses, 2 and 3, “Hinei El yeshuati evtach v’lo efchad, Behold, God is my salvation and I trust and am not afraid.” “Ki ozi v’zimrat Yah, Adonay, vay’hi li yeshuah. For He is my strength and might, and will be my salvation.”  Already we hear the word “yeshuah, salvation or redemption, twice and in the next verse once more, “Ushavtem mayim b’sasson mi-may’nei hayeshuah, You shall draw forth water in gladness from the wells of salvation.”  That last line from Isaiah is also a popular song for Israeli dancing at bar and bat mitzvah parties and elsewhere.  The next verse from Psalms 3:9, also mentions “yeshuah.” “Ladonay hayeshuah; al amcha birchatecha selah.  Salvation is the Lord’s; may You bless Your people forever.”  I’m not sure that “selah” means “forever,” but that’s the way it is taken in a couple of translations, though others simply leave it in Hebrew as a kind of exclamation.


The next verse from Psalms (46:12) does not mention yeshuah, but does end in “Selah” as well.  “Adonay Tzevaot imanu, misgav lanu, Elohei Yaakov selah.  The Lord of Hosts is with us, Jacob’s God is our stronghold, Selah.”  Adonay Tzevaot, generally rendered as Lord of Hosts, is one of the sacred names of God.  “Hosts” is an old-fashioned term for armies and in Robert Alter’s translation, he uses “the Lord of armies.”  Who is in these armies?  It could refer to hosts of angels or the hosts of Israelites here on earth or both.  In the verse that follows, Psalms (84:13), again we encounter “Adonay Tzevaot.”  That verse reads, “Adonay Tzevaot, ashrei adam bote-ach bach, “Lord of Hosts, happy is the man who trusts in You.”  The next verse uses only the name Adonay, but redemption reappears as well. We read Psalm 20:10, “Adonay, hoshiah, hamelech ya’aneinu b’yom koreinu, Adonay, save us.  May our King answer us on the day we cry out.”  Hoshiah is from the same root as yeshuah, we seek redemption, salvation.”  Of course, for Jews salvation is not a matter of being saved from sin as Christians might imagine it.  We are speaking of redemption from oppression and of our desire to be restored to our homeland and for the rebuilding of the Temple and the re-establishment of Jewish rule under the anointed descendant of King David (mashiach).


Now, out of left field comes a quotation from, of all places, a book that never mentions God’s name though He is clearly the invisible force behind it, the Book of Esther, the Megillah. “Layehudim hay’ta orah v’simcha v’sasson vikar, The Jews enjoyed light and happiness, joy and honor.”  We add three more words of our own, “Ken tihyeh lanu. May we have these too!”  The  custom in many places is for the reader to pause before this verse and let the congregation recite it first and then to repeat it.  That may well come from the practice when we read the Megillah, where it is one of four verses of redemption that are read first by the congregation and then repeated by the reader.


At this point, I always raise the wine cup as I chant, “Kos yeshuot esa uv’shem Adonay ekra.  I lift the cup of yeshuah, of salvation, and call upon the name of Adonay.”  Here we recite the four blessings I have mentioned earlier.  First the blessing for wine, Borei p’ri hagafen. Praising God who creates the fruit of the vine.  As at Kiddush, we do not yet drink the wine, for we will say the final blessing of havdalah over it as well.  Some set it down, while others continue to hold it and take the besamim container in their other hand.  We then recite the blessing for various kinds of spices, borei minei besamim, who creates varieties of spices, or if you happen to be using myrtle branches instead, borei atzei b’samim, who creates the fragrance of trees. We pass the spice box around for all to smell the fragrance of the spices, usually cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and such,.and then we turn to the candle.  As mentioned, we extend our hand toward the flame with our fingers bent over the palm of our hand as we say, the blessing of borei m’orei ha-eish, who creates the lights of the fire (following the wording of the School of Hillel). We observe the shadow in the palm of our hand, look at the difference between the finger nail and skin of our fingers and all the other participants do the same.


Once more we pick up the wine cup, and over it we chant the final havdalah blessing, “Baruch ata Adonay, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol, bein or l’choshech, bein Yisrael la’amim, bein yom hashviyi l’sheshet y’mei hama’aseh.  Baruch ata Adonay, hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol. Praised are You, Adonay, our God, Ruler of the Universe (and of Eternity), who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and the other nations, between the seventh day and the six workdays.  Praised are You, Adonay, who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary.”  The reader then drinks from the cup of blessing.


It is customary to pour some wine onto a plate and then extinguish the candle in the wine.(unless you’re planning on a grand effect by using whiskey instead.)  According to tradition this wine has special properties, so some take a few drops on each eyelash hoping for keen spiritual vision in the week ahead.  Others take a couple of drops in each pocket, expecting prosperity to follow.


There are many songs that we may look at another time as well as a tradition of Melaveh Malkah, yet another meal escorting the Shabbat Queen on her way.  However, most common are a couple of snippets of song that we are accustomed to sing, though they are actually just parts of longer pieces.  The first is the line, “Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol, chatoteinu Hu yimchol. Zareinu v’kaspeinu yarbeh k’chol v’cha-kochavim balailah, May the One who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary, pardon our sins.  May He increase our offspring and our fortunes, like the sand and like the stars in the night.”  Then we sing Elijah’s song, “Eliyahu hanavi, Eliyahu haTishbi, Eliyahu haGiladi, bimheirah v’yameinu yavo eileinu im mashiach ben David. Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah of Gilead, may he speedily come in our days with the anointed son of David.”  We conclude by singing the traditional greeting at the end of Shabbat either in Hebrew or Yiddish, Shavua Tov or A Gute Vok, a good week to all.

78 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Thoughts on Giyur (Conversion to Judaism)

I have often noted that, if one gets technical about it, there is really no such thing as “Juda-ism.”  It is a convenient catchall term, but we all seem to have our own way of defining our Jewish iden


bottom of page