Havdalah: Distinctions That Provide Identity and Meaning

Elliot N. Dorff


The Hebrew word havdalah means separation, a fitting title to a ceremony whose intent is to separate Shabbat or a festival from weekdays. In the same way that we mark the distinction between Shabbat and rest of the week on Friday night, by sanctifying it—that is, marking it off—with the Kiddush prayer, so too, at the end of Shabbat, we formally mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week with Havdalah.

Although some people, aware of what they have to do immediately after Shabbat is over, may not always be focusing on the meaning of the liturgy and instead may be waiting anxiously for Havdalah to be over, the liturgy presumes that we leave Shabbat reluctantly. The first paragraph of Havdalah is actually a collection of verses from the Bible that bespeak our trust in God to save us from the dangers of life. We are leaving the cocoon of Shabbat, which created, in Abraham Heschel’s felicitous phrase, “a palace in time,”1 when we are commanded to create walls and moats between this holy day and the pressures of work and the other stressors of life; and now, at the conclusion of Shabbat, we are about to re-encounter them all again. We are leaving, to use the rabbis’ phrase, “a foretaste of the world to come”2 and re-entering this world. We are leaving, to use Erich Fromm’s model, the ideal world of the Garden of Eden3 and entering the real and much more flawed world of our everyday lives.

As the liturgy recognizes, this transition understandably causes anxiety. We now have to face the challenges and dangers of life. It is for that reason that the first group of verses that we recite at Havdalah speak of God as our Deliverer and our Fortress. It is specifically “the Eternal One of Hosts [armies]” (Adonai tz’va·ot) whom we invoke—that is, the name of God that bespeaks God’s power to protect us from all that we fear. This phrase is used many times in the Bible to describe God, but the verse that describes God in that way in Havdalah comes from Psalm 46:12, in which God is specifically hailed as a stronghold in times of attack. Because God can and will shield us from the people and aspects of life that would do us harm, we need not be afraid of the challenges and dangers we will face in the week to come. Indeed, as the final verse asserts, “God will save us; the Sovereign will answer us in the day we call [upon Him]” (Psalm 20:10). Thus God’s protection will be with us whenever we need it.

This introductory section then leads us to the blessings themselves. We first recite a blessing over the wine, which is a symbol of joy whenever we mark happy events in the Jewish calendar and in our personal lives. We thus use wine at a b’rit milah (“bris”), the circumcision and naming of a newborn boy on the eighth day of his life, and many of the new birth ceremonies for girls (often called a simat bat, the celebration of a daughter) similarly use wine as a symbol of our joy for the new individual who has joined the Jewish people. We also use wine to express our joy at a wedding, and it is part of the evening Kiddush prayer with which we begin Shabbat and festivals. Here, in Havdalah, we are using wine to end Shabbat, and its association with joy tells us that we need to appreciate the distinction between Shabbat and the weekdays so that we can recognize and enjoy Shabbat as a special day. After all, if all days were Shabbat, we would not appreciate its special qualities! So even if we leave Shabbat with regret, we nonetheless express our joy at its end—joy for the privilege of having Shabbat in our lives—as we demark the boundary between Shabbat and the other days of the week about to begin.4

The second blessing in the Havdalah liturgy is over fragrant spices. Smelling them enables us to leave Shabbat with sweet associations in our minds and bodies. We are leaving a weekly encounter with the Sabbath Bride, who enriches our lives and those of our family and community. The spices symbolize that we remember Shabbat fondly and long for the next Shabbat, when we will have the pleasure of experiencing Shabbat again. They betoken our joy in the Shabbat that has just passed, our wistfulness in wanting to hold onto it yet longer, and our anticipation of a Shabbat to come next week. In addition to this straightforward meaning of the spices in Havdalah, many other symbolic meanings can be, and have been, attributed to their use. So, for example, the rabbis maintained that we have “an extra soul” on Shabbat,5 and so we end Shabbat with spices in part to do what smelling salts do: to give us an extra dose of strength and consciousness that we will need as we carry on during the week without the extra soul of Shabbat.

The use of a candle also has a straightforward meaning, as well as many more symbolic ones. We are not allowed to light or extinguish fires on Shabbat, and so one graphic indication that Shabbat is over is lighting this candle. A common custom is to darken the room in which Havdalah is recited (or to recite Havdalah outside), and people raise their hands and look at their fingers in the light of the candle to signify that they now may light fire again. The blessing that we recite over the candle is “who creates the lights [plural] of the fire,” and so at least two wicks must be lit. “Havdalah candles,” though, often consist of three or more intertwined wicks, each colored differently. This makes them beautiful, a wonderful expression of the Jewish value of hiddur mitzvah, fulfilling a commandment in an aesthetically pleasing way. That said, any candle with at least two wicks—of any color, and whether separate and just held together, or wound around each other to form a single flame—may be used for this purpose.

After a festival, we do not use a candle for Havdalah because transferring fire from a source and lighting another candle is permissible on a festival. We also do not use spices because they are associated with the greater sweetness and extra soul of Shabbat. So Havdalah after a festival consists only of the blessing over the wine and the last blessing, described in the next paragraph. (On Yom Kippur, as on Shabbat, we are not allowed to kindle a fire, so Havdalah after Yom Kippur does include lighting at least two wicks—but, as on other festivals, the spices are omitted.)

Nightfall—marking the distinction between daylight and darkness—indicates the end of Shabbat or the festival and thus occasions the recitation of Havdalah. In its last blessing, the liturgy juxtaposes the distinction between the Sabbath and weekdays to other distinctions that are important to us: “between the holy and the secular, between light and dark, between Israel and the (other) nations, between the seventh day and the six days of work.” Why are distinctions like these important? The Torah recognizes that distinctions are important in its very first chapter, where God creates the various parts of the world by distinguishing them from the original chaos and then one from another. In like manner, the distinctions listed here in the liturgy give us as a Jewish people and Shabbat as a special day their identity as such. If we were not distinct from other nations, and if Shabbat were not distinct from the other days of the week, neither Jews nor anyone else could recognize Jews as a people with its own identity different from the other nations of the world, and we Jews could not recognize Shabbat as a day different from all the others. Thus, in its concluding blessing, Havdalah celebrates these distinctions because they give us nothing less than our own sense of self, our understanding of the world, and our way of finding meaning in who we are as a people and in how we mark and celebrate the passage of time.










1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1951), p. 21.
2 Their phrase is novelet ha-olam ha-ba in Bereishit Rabbah 17:5 (17:7 in some editions) and in the Mekhilta to Exodus 31:13; it is mei-ein olam ha-ba in the midrash entitled Asarah Harugei Malkhut (“The Ten Martyrs”) as published in Otzar Ha-midrashim, ed. Judah David Eisenstein (New York: J. D. Eisenstein, 1915), p. 442.
3 Eric Fromm, The Forgotten Language (New York: Grove Press, 1951), pp. 243–248.
4 I will return to the idea that meaning derives from the effort to mark off time and things from one another in my essay for the Search for Meaning volume in the Mesorah Matrix series, to be published 2018.
5 B. Beitzah 16a; B. Taanit 27b. For more on the idea of the “extra soul” and its connection with the Havdalah spices, see the essay elsewhere in this volume by Martin S. Cohen.