A Certain Time: An Intertextual Reading of Havdalah and Esther

Ora Horn Prouser


The Havdalah liturgy, which marks a separation in time between the holiness of Shabbat and the remainder of the week, comprises a series of biblical verses and a number of blessings. While we generally only think about Havdalah in terms of the blessings, as addressing issues of separation, in this essay I will examine the verses that open the Havdalah ceremony and consider the significance of their placement and meaning.

The structure of the Havdalah ceremony includes a selection of biblical verses; blessings over the wine, spices, and light; and then a concluding blessing recognizing God as being responsible for these instances of separation.1 The opening verses are primarily from Psalms, with two from Isaiah and one from Esther.2 These verses are interesting in that they are not about Shabbat, weekday, or time at all. They are very much about salvation, with five of the verses using the word y’shu∙ah (“salvation”) in some form. They describe God as the source of all salvation, and the importance of having faith in God and God’s protection. They depict a life of faith and confidence in God’s support.

The liturgically climactic verse is Esther 8:16, “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.” It differs from the verses that precede and follow it insofar as it is the only one that is from a biblical narrative; the others are all drawn from poetic texts. In addition, the Esther verse is highlighted liturgically, as it is chanted aloud by all present, not only the leader. Moreover, this verse does not use the word y’shu∙ah and does not talk about God at all. The unique emphasis given this verse suggests that we might look for a more complex relationship between Havdalah and the Book of Esther.

This essay will undertake an intertextual reading of Esther and Havdalah, reading both Havdalah in light of Esther and Esther in light of Havdalah. The idea of reading liturgical and biblical texts intertextually has led to meaningful insights into both sets of texts.3 Following Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s method of reading liturgical and biblical texts together, we will look at the allusions in the liturgical text, examine the biblical text that is alluded to in its original context, take into account rabbinic interpretation of the biblical text, and then draw conclusions about the prayer and the biblical text.4 More specifically, we will look at how the Book of Esther, in its biblical context and as seen through the eyes of rabbinic midrash, illuminates our understanding of Havdalah and how, in turn, Havdalah impacts our reading of Esther.

This connection between Havdalah and Esther has been noted by others. Tamar Frankel, for example, remarks that “by appropriating this verse and inserting it here within this liturgical pastiche from Psalms and Isaiah, it too has been redeemed from its original profane setting. And with it, Esther takes her place, albeit belatedly and through a back door, as a psalmist and prophet in Israel.”5 Frankel’s focus is on the character of Esther herself and she looks at this reading as redeeming Esther as a character. This is valuable, but it is important to explore the Book of Esther more comprehensively, not merely to look at the character of Esther per se.6

There are a number of interesting connections that can be drawn between the Book of Esther and Havdalah; in each case, the connection is filled with complexity. To begin, the theme of salvation (or the need for salvation) underlies both of them. In Esther the Jews, threatened with extinction at the hands of Haman and his hordes, are facing genocide. Their only hope for salvation lies with Esther, who intercedes on their behalf with the king and saves her people (Esther, chapter 7). She is encouraged to stand up for her people by her cousin, Mordecai (Esther, chapter 4). The support she solicits from her people involves fasting only, not praying (4:16). There is no explicit mention of God in the entire book; all hope for salvation is contingent upon human actions. Havdalah, by contrast, begins with a series of verses that explicitly emphasize God’s saving power, the need to call out for God’s protection, and the confidence that comes with faith in God’s acts of salvation. In Havdalah, human understanding of the world is bound inextricably to an understanding of God’s power to deliver. There is a focus on God being a personal God.7 The verses emphasize that God is in control, and able to provide protection and support. In addition, the idea is put forward that individuals can feel faith and support in God’s presence.8

These two approaches to God and salvation in the Book of Esther and Havdalah are totally different. Interpretive rabbinic readings (generally called d’rash in Hebrew sources) of Esther differ from contextual reading of the text (generally called p’shat, in contradistinction to d’rash), in that they make real space for God in the book.9 They find a variety of textual clues that they interpret as references to the Divine throughout the book, including instances of what they read as “hidden meaning” in the text itself. For example, Mordecai claims that if Esther does not use her leadership position to save the Jews, then “salvation will come to the Jews from a makom aeir” (different place; Esther 4:14). Rabbinic readings of this verse understand the word makom as a divine epithet, and thus read this verse to imply that if Esther doesn’t take her place in saving the Jews, then God will send someone else to do so. They effectively reread the book assuming God’s role as the saving presence. The rabbis likewise interpreted various verses in the book as references to God’s presence.10 For someone familiar with the rabbinic reading of Esther, these perspectives will naturally be present when reading Havdalah and Esther together. On the one hand, the verse from Esther reinforces the emphasis on salvation by calling to mind the dangers confronting the Jewish people, their need for help, and the realization that Jews have been saved from near-destruction repeatedly. On the other hand, this intertextual reading begs the question of the source of that salvation. Are we supposed to look to God as the One who will save in every situation, as the rabbinic reading makes clear, or is it our responsibility to act and save ourselves, as seems implied by the p’shat of Esther? The intertextual reading makes this question unavoidable. The attentive worshipper reads the verse from Esther embedded in a pastiche of verses expressing absolute faith in God’s power, inevitably giving rise to the question of what the human role is, in that equation. At the same time, it responds to the seeming absence of any divine role in the salvation narrated in the Book of Esther and emphasizes the importance of contemplating a divine source of redemption.

Another interesting connection between the two texts relates to sensuality. Havdalah is a ceremony that uses multiple sensory stimuli and modalities. We taste the wine, smell the spices, see the light of the candle, hear the singing of the liturgy, and extend our fingers toward the candle as if to experience the tactile impact of the flame. In Esther, the senses are in evidence throughout the book. Wine and drinking are highlighted repeatedly, as the descriptions of the Persian court include tremendous emphasis on excessive drinking, on excessive eating, and the results of that extreme level of indulgence. For example, Ahasuerus hosts a 180-day party for ministers and the elite (Esther 1:3–4), followed by a 7-day party for the whole community (Esther 1:5); at the same time, Vashti makes a party for women (Esther 1:9). It was in a drunken state that the king called for Vashti to come to the party to exhibit her beauty, an act that had long-term consequences both for their marriage and for the monarchy (Esther 1:10ff). This pattern of the role of wine and parties continues throughout the book.11 While b’samim are the spices used in Havdalah for smelling, b’samim appear in Esther as products used by women in bathing and beautification, making them more alluring in anticipation of their encounter with the king. Esther, as a prospective bride, prepared herself to see the king for the first time through a regimen of bathing over a period of twelve months: six months in myrrh, and six months in b’samim, aromatic spices (Esther 2:12).12 The light that is used in Havdalah (referenced liturgically in the plural as the “lights of flame,” me’orei ha-eish) can be compared to the use of the word light (orah) in Esther as a symbol of joy, as seen in the verse under discussion. Lastly, the visual aspect of Havdalah can be compared to the very visual elements in Esther, such as the description of the ostentatious décor in the Persian royal palace.13

While both texts are sensual, the use of these images is very different. In Havdalah, the use of all of the senses is part of the ritual itself. It emphasizes that we experience this ritual and the distinctions it marks with every part of ourselves. In Esther, however, the sensual aspects are used to show excess. They don’t simply drink at a party; they drink at a party that lasts for six months, with an explicit royal policy eschewing restraint: the text makes a specific point of saying that the king ordered that they pour wine without restraint of any sort (k’dat ein oneis, Esther 1:8).14 Women don’t simply use spices; they bathe in spices for six months. The palace is not simply beautiful; it is filled with every kind of precious stone and metal. These excesses are very much a part of the Persian kingdom and are not mentioned in reference to the Jews and their practices. Esther uses the spices under the direction of the Persians, while she is hiding her Jewish identity in a scheme not of her own design. The role of the senses in both Havdalah and Esther, however, highlights the points of similarity between both texts and the value of reading them together.

A third point of comparison between the two texts is that both Esther and Havdalah have as a major theme the idea of separation. Havdalah ritually separates between Shabbat holiness and the unsanctified nature of the weekday. It highlights God’s role in separating, emphasizing distinctions between ordinary days and sacred time, between light and dark, and between Israel and other nations. These separations are seen as necessary, and are highlighted as God’s gifts to humankind in general and to Israel in particular. These separations are also put on equal footing with each other. The separation of light and dark, which is so basic to nature, is seen on the same level as the separation between Israel and other nations, a particularistic theological idea.

The Book of Esther also places great emphasis on separation. One of the themes of the book is that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews is complex and difficult. Haman describes the Jews to Ahasuerus as “a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). The distinction between Jews and non-Jews is seen as negative, as something to be feared by the ruling country. From the Jewish perspective within the book, there is tremendous ambivalence about the question of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. On the one hand, Mordecai emphasizes the need for Esther to hide her identity. At the same time, Mordecai displays no hesitation about publicly self-identifying as a Jew and he ultimately receives an appointment to a high governmental position despite his Jewishness. The book seems to be struggling with the question of the positives and negatives of a Jewish community that lives within a non-Jewish dominant culture, yet preserves its religious and ethnic distinctiveness from the non-Jewish world. It struggles with the question of what it means to live in a foreign country and to deal with dual loyalty.15 The idea of dual loyalty pervades the text, in fact, with Esther and Mordecai dealing with issues of their identity and their loyalty both to the Persian court and to the Jewish community. And the answer ultimately is mixed. The Book of Esther emphasizes that the Jews have tremendous difficulties living in Persia, and yet, at the same time, they succeed and hold governmental positions. They survive by engaging with non-Jews, but the book also makes it clear that the Jews need to stick together and cannot necessarily trust others. Our intertextual reading thus highlights the great ambivalence in the Book of Esther about issues of separation.

It is possible to think of the highlighting of the Esther verse in Havdalah as pointing to the need to read the texts together, and to read Havdalah as a rabbinic response to Esther, categorically responding to the book’s ambivalence about issues such as separation and the role of God in the world. For example, in the Book of Esther, there are real questions about the role of God. While God is not mentioned in the book, it is possible to identify a struggle within the text as to the role of God. For example, when Esther is preparing to go before the king unbidden, she does not pray, but she fasts and asks the people to fast with her (Esther 4:16). This action is completely human-centered. One may ask, however: What is the role of fasting, if not to curry divine favor?16 Thus, although there is no explicit reference to the Divine in the book, the reference to fasting in this verse raises a question. The intertextual reading then addresses this matter. The verses in the beginning of Havdalah make clear that it is God who is the source of salvation. It is God to whom humans can address themselves when in danger, and it is God in whom humans can have faith.

Havdalah can be read as a response to Esther in terms of issues of separation as well. In Esther, it is not clear whether separation from non-Jews is positive or negative. Haman talks about the Jews as “a people apart” (Esther 3:8) and this is said in a very negative way. In Esther, one might argue that the Jews were saved because they maintained their particularity. They responded as a community, fasting together and calling on each other for support. Or one could make the case that the Jews survived because they did have connections with the Persian world. The combination of Mordecai’s efforts on behalf of the king and Esther’s position might be understood to suggest that the Jews can only survive when they do not separate from the non-Jews with whom they live. One could argue that it was only the relationships that were nurtured and preserved with the Persian regime that made it possible for the Jews to be saved. Havdalah responds to this, however, by saying that it is all about separation. This separation of Jews and non-Jews is as natural and basic as the separation of light and dark.

Havdalah also responds to the sensuality of the Book of Esther by taking the areas that were used to excess and that led to difficult situations, and redefining them as elements in the service of God. It makes the point that sensuality in and of itself is not problematic; it is the excess that is objectionable.

A good intertextual reading must work in both directions. What do we learn when we read Havdalah in light of Esther? Havdalah emphasizes dualities that coexist: holiness and everyday life, light and dark, Israel and other nations. In Esther the focus is on reversals (Esther 9:1). The day of fear becomes a day of celebration. The one who had been elevated in the government was brought low. The one who had been considered lowly became a leader. The book highlights these reversals and makes them the essence of the story.17 When reading Havdalah in light of Esther, the point is made that one needs to look not only for reversals, but rather needs to figure out how to live with dualities. One needs to be able to recognize that light and dark both exist together. We have to live in a world of dualities, and not one in which we await reversals.

Havdalah is a very moving liturgical experience. It engages the senses and variously includes ritual, prayer, and song. Esther is the biblical book read on Purim, a holiday of joy and principled silliness, coupled with concern for the future of the Jewish people. While each ritual and liturgical expression has meaning in and of itself, the relationship of the two, the combination, is deeper and richer than either one alone. The intertextual reading helps us to think about our relationship with God, and our understanding of the source of our salvation. It urges us to steer clear of excess and to use our full selves in the service of God. It leads us to understand that we live in a world of dualities and combinations that we need to know how to negotiate. Each of these issues is an important area in Jewish life. This reading addresses us as sensual beings, it deals with our relationship with God, and it speaks to our relationship with the larger world. The presence of the Esther verse in Havdalah, and the intertextual reading that it encourages us to undertake, allows us to explore each of these areas in depth, and to find our own answers to these very difficult questions.










1 The history of Havdalah includes several versions of the liturgy, as well as a version said at home and a version said at the synagogue. In addition, the history of the development of Havdalah includes some fluidity in the choices of verses to begin the liturgy. For the purpose of this essay we will only focus on Havdalah in its current traditional form. For a discussion of the history of Havdalah and the variants in its liturgy, see Lawrence A. Hoffman, Beyond the Text: A Holistic Approach to Liturgy (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 23ff.
2 The verses are Isaiah 12:2–3; Psalms 3:9, 46:12, 84:13, and 20:10; Esther 8:16; and Psalm 116:13.
3 See the work done by Elie Kaunfer in his Interpreting Jewish Liturgy: The Literary-Intertext Method, PhD dissertation (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2014), available online at http://www.mechonhadar.org/blog/interpreting-jewish-liturgy-literary-intertext-method, and by Jeffrey Hoffman in The Bible in the Prayerbook: A Study in Intertextuality, DHL dissertation (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1996). And see also Kaunfer’s essay elsewhere in this volume for an application of the intertext method to the Havdalah prayer.
4 Kaunfer, pp. 31–32.
5 Tamar Frankel in My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries: Vol. 7: Shabbat at Home, ed. Lawrence A. Hoffman (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), p. 172.
6 For another point of view concerning the character of Esther, see the essay by Barbara Thiede elsewhere in this volume.
7 See, especially, Isaiah 12:2.
8 According to Lawrence Hoffman, Havdalah occurs at a liminal time of day, the separation between day and night, and at a liminal social time, as Jews went from the Sabbath day in synagogues back to their lives in secular society. As liminal times can be considered dangerous, Havdalah’s emphasis on salvation is especially fitting. See Beyond the Text (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1987), p. 42.
9 Interestingly, the rabbis were not the first ones to attempt to add divine elements to Esther. The early Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, made considerable additions to the Book of Esther, adding religious elements such as lengthy prayers, and showing Esther’s concern about being able to observe Jewish law. See, e.g., Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1977).
10 See, e.g., B. Megillah 7a. For example, Esther 6:6 refers to Haman’s inner dialogue. The rabbis ask how we would know Haman’s inner thoughts if the book was not divinely written. Another example is the description of Esther’s beauty in 2:15. In that verse Esther is described as a woman who was considered beautiful by anyone who saw her. The rabbis assume that no woman would be considered beautiful by all people, so, it must be that this book was divinely written.
11 See, for example: 3:15, where Ahasuerus and Haman sit and drink together after deciding to kill the Jews; and chapters 5 and 7, where Esther hosts multiple parties for Haman and Ahasuerus, at which Haman is accused and eventually punished. Food and feasting thus play an important role in these major turning points in the story. Note also that the Jews celebrate their victory with feasting (9:17ff).
12 It is interesting to note that because in earliest times the most common spice to use for Havdalah was myrtle, one traditional name for a spicebox was hadas. Cf. Hoffman, My People’s Prayer Book, p. 167. This is, of course, strongly reminiscent of Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah, as mentioned at Esther 2:7.
13 See, e.g., Esther 1:6.
14 This verse is especially interesting as it makes the point, using legal language, that there be no restraint in the serving of wine. In other words, it emphasizes that it is a legal matter (k’dat) that there should be no restraint in the serving of wine.
15 See, e.g., Edward L. Greenstein, “A Jewish Reading of Esther,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, eds. Jacob Neuser, Baruch A. Levine, and Ernest S. Frerichs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), p. 235.
16 Cf., e.g., the text at Jonah 3:5–10 that specifically connects fasting with the effort to earn God’s favor.
17 See Adele Berlin’s analysis in her The JPS Bible Commentary: Esther (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), pp. xxiv ff.