Havdalah: Ushering in a New Week

By Cantor Lorna Wallach

This Saturday at 5:30 p.m., the youngest members of our CBI community, along with their parents, grandparents and other guests, will come together for a special Havdalah program –- in pajamas!

Havdalah, meaning separation, is a short but beautiful ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat (and Holidays) and ushers in the new week. Havdalah may be recited as soon as three stars could be visible in the night sky. It is a multi-sensory ritual in which we use all five of our faculties –- we taste the wine, smell the spices, see the flame of the candle and feel its heat, and hear the blessings. The content of the Havdalah ceremony forces us to contemplate the many ways that Shabbat is unique and different from the rest of time. Having this ceremony helps to define the boundaries between the sacredness of Shabbat and the mundaneness of the rest of the week.

Havdalah begins with the recitation of a number of biblical verses, which come from Psalms, the Book of Isaiah and Megillat Esther, praising God as our Savior. This paragraph is followed by the first of the four blessings in Havdalah which is over the wine. Wine, a symbol of joy and special occasions in our tradition, is used to bring in the Shabbat and so, too, for saying goodbye to Shabbat.

The blessing over fragrant spices is next. There is a Talmudic tradition that every Jew is given an extra soul on Shabbat and when Shabbat is over, that extra soul departs from us. Some say that the fragrance of the spices is intended to revive us upon the departure of that extra soul. Spice boxes for Havdalah have traditionally been among the most beautifully embellished objects of Jewish ceremonial art.

The third Havdalah blessing is over the candle. According to the Talmud, the Havdalah candle should be a “torch” and therefore is must have more than one wick. If one does not have a candle with two or more wicks, you can hold any two candles together so that their wicks are connected as one. The resulting bright fire symbolizes the difference between the spiritual world and the material world. Shabbat is the gateway to the spiritual world, which is full of light, so it needs no illumination, but the material world needs fire for illumination.

The final blessing acknowledges God as the one who separates the holy from the mundane. Then, after taking a drink of the wine, some have the custom of extinguishing the flame in the wine. Other customs include dipping a finger into the leftover wine and putting a drop on your eyelids and into your pants pockets for a good omen.

In addition to the text of Havdalah, it is traditional to include the singing of Eliyahu Hanavo. In some communities women recite a “tekhine” (special woman’s prayer) called “Gott Fun Avraham,” and at the conclusion of Havdalah, some sing the zemer (a religious song) Hamavdil, which has many references to asking for forgiveness. After Havdalah, we wish each other Shavua Tov, a good week.

May the coming week be a good week for all!