Havdalah: The Essence of Judaism

Reuven P. Bulka


When we hear the word havdalah, we instinctively think about the conclusion of Shabbat and the yamim tovim, the festivals, when we are obliged to delineate the ordinary days from the sacred days through what has come to be known as the Havdalah ritual. But in actuality havdalah as a concept goes back a long time, pre-dating both Shabbat and the festivals. It is havdalah as a general concept that is the primary focus of this essay and, in the end, we will circle back to the Havdalah ritual specifically, and the meaning of its words.


Separation in Creation

We are first introduced to the notion of havdalah very early in the story of creation. We are told that “God saw that the light was good, and God separated (va-yavdeil) between the light and the darkness” (Genesis 1:4).

The verse is quite perplexing. Why the need to separate light from darkness? What would have occurred had light and darkness mixed? Is that not what we have in the period around dusk or at daybreak? Yet the world survives.

Moreover, God separated the light from the dark after seeing “that the light was good.” We are prompted to wonder: In what way is light good, rather than just real? And why is the separation of light from darkness seemingly contingent on God’s seeing that the light was good?

The creation chronicle continues with more references to havdalah, to separation. On the second day (or, rather, phase) of creation, we are introduced to the separation of the waters (Genesis 1:6–7). On the fourth day, we are again presented with the notion of separation, this time between day and night (Genesis 1:14, 18). It seems clear that the biblical narrative presents the concept of havdalah as a deeply engrained feature of creation.

Nathan Aviezer, in his outstanding work In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science, puts our original question into a more scientific framework. On God’s having separated light from darkness (Genesis 1:14), he observes that “darkness is not a substance that can be separated from light. The word ‘darkness’ simply denotes the absence of light. If there is darkness, then there is no light; if there is light, then there is no darkness. Thus, there is no logical content to the notion of the separation of light from darkness.”1

Aviezer notes that matter, when it was originally formed, existed neither as atoms nor as groups of atoms called molecules, because the enormous temperature of the primeval fireball—an intense concentration of pure energy—would have disintegrated any atom. At that time, matter existed in a form called plasma. The atom is electrically neutral; plasma consists of particles having either positive or negative charges. The properties of the charged particles are such that a plasma “traps” light and prevents its free passage. To an outside observer, a plasma always appears dark.

Within a fraction of a second after the big bang, Aviezer explains, the universe consisted of the light of the primeval fireball interspersed with a plasma. The light of the fireball, though extremely intense, could not escape to be seen, since it was trapped by the plasma. After what Aviezer refers to as time zero, the intensely hot primeval fireball cooled very rapidly, enough to allow the charged particles of the plasma to combine and form atoms. When the plasma was transformed into atoms, the light of the fireball was no longer trapped by the plasma and began to visibly shine, filling the entire universe.2

Regarding our question concerning the separation of light, Aviezer states the following: “The big-bang theory explains that the universe originally consisted of a mixture of a plasma and the light of the primeval fireball. At that time, the universe appeared dark because of the plasma. The sudden transformation of the plasma into atoms shortly after the creation caused the electromagnetic radiation (‘light’) of the primeval fireball to separate from the previously dark universe and shine freely through space. This separation is called decoupling in scientific terminology.”3 Aviezer then delivers the punch line for our question: “The biblical passage ‘And God separated the light from the darkness’ may be understood as referring to the decoupling of the light from the dark fireball-plasma mixture.”4

All this is beyond brilliant and illuminating. On a scientific level, it addresses what actually happened in creation. But the question with which we began remains, perhaps demanding a response even more acutely. To a certain extent, what happened with the light, the decoupling, was a separation of sorts. But it was more a freeing up, rather than a separation. For what reason does the Torah describe what occurred as separation, as havdalah? Scripture could have referred to it as God extricating or freeing the light from being trapped in a plasma.


Seeing the Light

But what if Scripture intends, through the ongoing use of the language of separation, to describe creation in order to teach us something unrelated to science, but rather something instructive about our own spiritual lives? That message could be that separation inheres in creation, and is an essential concept for humans to understand if we are to interact successfully with God’s universe. The concept of havdalah, of separating, of seeing difference, is critical for fully appreciating God’s world and living according to God’s word.

Put simply, creation made order out of chaos; that is what creation achieved. The “world order” came via separation. Previously the world was a mishmash. This pattern of God making order from chaos is meant to suggest to us our ongoing role in sustaining creation: the obligation to create and maintain order in the world by creating zones of goodness and justice, and making them separate from the chaos from which they will emerge.

What is so good about light? God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1:4). God saw that it was good to be able to see, to discern, to delineate, to separate, to realize and appreciate differentness in the proper way. There is little possibility of differentiating if one cannot see. In the dark, everything is the same.

What happened right after creation—the ill-fated episode involving Adam and Eve and the fruit of a certain tree—can be seen as somewhat related to idea of havdalah. It remains a riddle as to why Adam was not able to eat everything, why there was one fruit of a certain tree that he was proscribed from eating (Genesis 2:16–17). If God did not wish for Adam to eat of one specific tree, why was it there at all? Could the plan have been, just perhaps, for Adam to learn something of the concept of havdalah from the very beginning of his time on earth?

We can imagine God turning to Adam and saying, “You, Adam, must not look at everything as being the same. There is a hierarchy of values in the world: there are do’s and do not’s, there are behaviors that are acceptable and behaviors that are out of bounds, there are foods that are permitted and foods that are not. Often the differences are subtle, but failing to realize that there are distinctions, that there are things permissible and things prohibited, will compromise your ability to flourish. Without boundaries, everything goes and nothing matters.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his monumental Torah commentary, suggests that the word havdalah goes beyond the notion of mere separation, and implies a positive allocation, a separate existence, a separate purpose.5 Indeed, the idea of meaningful separation, as we are about to discover, pervades the Torah in so many dimensions.


Sun and Moon

In further contemplating creation, it is instructive to look at the sun–moon relationship. That relationship is introduced as follows: “Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to separate between the day and the night; and they shall serve as signs, for festivals, and for days and for years” (Genesis 1:14). These luminaries, the sun and the moon, have clear directives and boundaries. Their respective roles are to dominate “by day and by night, and to separate between the light and the darkness” (Genesis 1:18).

Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar (1646–1793) indicates in his commentary Or Ha-ayyim to Genesis 1:17 that these constellations were ordered not to encroach on each other, that each is commanded regarding its own boundaries that it must not trespass; thereby day and night will be recognizable.

Regarding the setting in order and the fixing of boundaries between the newly created light and the old darkness, Hirsch observes:

Both are henceforth to rule the world, both to have their uses for the world. Light to awaken everything to individual life and growth, darkness to give opportunity for forces to penetrate and work internally by relaxing from stimulation. Light is not to work unceasingly, both light and darkness receive their kingdoms, and again it is God, the same God who called “Light” into the darkness, who intervened, with His Almighty Power of arranging and limiting, between these two greatest and most important contrasts which were henceforth to rule the world; “and God divided the light from darkness”…
All life germinates in the womb of obscure darkness, everything matures to independence under the rays of light. And this change accompanies us throughout the whole of our existence here below. In our temporary stay on earth we cannot bear constant light. When we have used all our forces for twelve hours in the ray of light, working and attempting and accomplishing, we sink back, weary and enervated, into the old darkness, and, sheltered under the motherly wing of Night, imbibe fresh forces to be able to develop a fresh life of light.6

The sun–moon, day–night, light–dark balance, intricately bound up in creation, is the time-related aspect of life in the real world. Both day and night figure prominently in how to live properly. The night paves the way for the day, be it through regrouping, re-energizing, or creating. The day brings to the fore all that was made possible by the contemplative, recuperative night period.

Moving beyond the realm of time, let us now see how the havdalah concept functions in other aspects of life.


The L’mino Concept

There are a host of biblical regulations that prohibit the eradication of the havdalah notion embedded in creation. These include, for example, the laws that forbid mating diverse kinds of animals or even planting single fields with diverse crops (Numbers 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9, respectively). The medieval Sefer Ha-innukh, traditionally ascribed to Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (1235–c.1290), explains the rationale for these laws as follows:

At the root of the precept is that God created God’s world with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and made and shaped all the forms according to what they required to fit into the purpose of the world…and that explains why it is written, regarding the work of creation, “God saw everything that God made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31)….Since God knows that everything God made is perfectly suited to its purpose as needed in the world, therefore God commanded each and every species to produce its fruit of its own kind, as written in the order of creation (Genesis 1:11, 21, 24), and the species must not be mingled, lest their completeness be diminished, and God will not command the godly blessing for them. According to our thought, it seems that this is the root reason why we were forbidden to mate different species of animals; similarly for this same reason…were we warned regarding plants and trees.7

    This idea of species preservation is more than a mere precept. It is an enveloping concept, critical to the entirety of Jewish expression. This is most obvious in the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In his great philosophical work Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, Hirsch states:

It may be that these laws were directly intended to remind us in…our cattle breeding, our agricultural activities, our work in general, in our clothing and in our food, of the fact that God’s law lies at the basis of the existence and development of all organic life; and that God’s law, which has been set down in the Torah for mankind and Israel, is nothing but the Divine l’mino-declaration on behalf of the life of man and of Israel, so that man might fulfill that Divine task in free, dutiful loyalty which all other species of earthly beings bring to realization in their existence and activity—unerringly and of necessity—bound by instinct and the laws of nature.8

Hirsch enlarges on the l’mino (“for its species”) theme in his commentary to Genesis 1:11–13, seeing it as a critical component of our faith system. He states that this law, which God implanted in the organic world of nature, is

of the very highest importance for our human and Jewish calling, for it has interwoven consideration of it in the whole of our life. Not only does it forbid us actual interference with this law by the prohibition of…the unnatural crossing of species of plants and animals which are of different species in nature, but in our whole association with the organic world—at sowing and planting, at the use of animals for work, at using materials obtained from animal and vegetable sources for our clothes, and at the food we eat…it teaches us to keep such order that brings to our minds again and again the great law of “keeping species separate.”9

Hirsch actually sees the Torah as the l’mino, the uniqueness, of the Jewish people, embracing the entirety of life—the animal world, the vegetable world, eating, drinking, clothing, sexual relations, etc. In a penetrating discourse on the famous, thrice-mentioned prohibition to “cook no animal flesh in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21), Hirsch considers this regulation as belonging to the general category of forbidden mixtures, in violation of the law of l’mineihu (a variant form of l’mino), God’s law of nature—even though the meat-milk mixture does not actually involve an interference with the laws of nature.10

Hirsch contends that the human being is “endowed with the alimentary and sexual objects of the plant, and the thought and movement of the animal,” but in addition is “endowed with the breath of God, which raises his animal power of thought into an understanding and discerning spirit, and the animal power of action into free untrammeled power of exercising his will, and which is able to, and meant to rule, as a human being, over both the vegetable and animal nature of his being.”11 Hirsch goes on to argue that in the human being, “the vegetative is to submit itself to the animal, and both to the human intellect, which is called upon to rule and master them…”12 So crucial is this idea of separation that it is mentioned here three times, including the first time as the crescendo-finale of the many social laws immediately preceding it, as expressed submission to the law of the species, the l’mino law.

The l’mino law is the quintessential havdalah: the separation, the delineation, the embedding of a value hierarchy that is described in the Torah. And it all derives from creation.


Uniqueness Among Humans

The most elementary creation-related delineation is that which distinguishes between humans and animals. Adam’s search for a viable partner, when the only choices available were in the animal kingdom, speaks eloquently to this. Adam’s frustration at not finding a suitable match (Genesis 2:19–20) expresses quite clearly how distinct the animal kingdom is from the human.

Both spheres—that of human and that of animal—have their purpose, but this does not suggest the viability of a biosphere that successful integrates all parts of creation without blurring their inherent distinctiveness. On the one hand, having respect for the animal kingdom is entrenched in the Torah via many laws that forbid cruelty to animals, such as prohibiting the muzzling of an ox when it is doing its work on the threshing floor (Deuteronomy 25:4). On the other hand, treating an animal as a fully acceptable sexual partner—the ultimate act of eradicating species-specific distinctiveness—is considered a heinous crime (Leviticus 18:23 and 20:15).

There is also distinctiveness within the human realm; not all human beings are the same. Yes, they are all human—but there are important distinctions even among humans. Males are different from females, even as they share obvious similarities. Both are created in the divine image, and both are capable of great achievements and horrible deeds. But a man cannot bear children and a woman cannot impregnate a man. Similarly, crossing other social and spiritual gender-based boundaries merely because these can actually be crossed is no less a distortion of God’s creation. Is one better than the other? Absolutely not. But they are distinct from each other. Surely this does not mean that women and men cannot learn from each other. Nor does it imply that gender-based distinctions rooted in the supposition that one gender is superior to the other should be slavishly maintained. But what it does mean is that the creation of humanity in two distinct genders—surely not the only options open to an all-powerful Creator—is meant to enhance the human experience, and should be celebrated as part of God’s plan for humankind.

We are obliged to love our fellow human beings (Leviticus 19:18), but the very nature of creation forces us to realize that not all love is the same; how we interact with our parents or with our spouse, for example, differs from how we interact with other people. These relationships are unique, sanctified, separated (that is to say, distinct) from other relationships. Unique relationships beget unique ways of expressing respect, love, and admiration. Were this not the case, then all relationships would suffer.


Priests and Levites

Within the community of Israel, not everyone is the same. The sanctity of every human life is a universal value, but different individuals have different roles and responsibilities.

Consider, for example, the Levites. After listing some of their special responsibilities, God says to Moses: “So shall you separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine” (Numbers 8:14). Moses recollects this delineation years later, when he recapitulates his life with the people of Israel: “At that time, God set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of God’s covenant…” (Deuteronomy 10:8). This hierarchy of responsibility, however, degenerated into a power conflict in the Koraḥ rebellion, described in the Torah at Numbers 16–17. In the heat of that bitter conflict, Moses said: “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the assembly of Israel to draw you near…And God drew you near, and all your brethren, the offspring of Levi, with you; yet you seek priesthood as well” (Numbers 16:9–10). For Koraḥ and his cohorts, levitical status was not sufficient. Their aspiration, which they attempted to attain in high-handed fashion, was to cross over a boundary and become priests.

The Levites are a distinct tribe, but within the levitical family there is a further delineation that separates kohanim (that is, those Levites descended from Aaron) from other Levites. Each of these groups have clear and distinct responsibilities. Is one group better than the other? Clearly not. But can one group arrogate to itself the responsibilities that were handed to another group? Again, the answer is no.

Consider the fact that the Levites were responsible for the mishkan (that is, the desert Tabernacle), its furniture, and all that pertained to it—including setting it up and dismantling it. What if a non-Levite wanted to assume this responsibility? The Torah is clear and unequivocal: “The stranger that draws near shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51). In other words, a stranger, a non-Levite, who assumes levitical function, commits a capital offense. The Talmud poses a somewhat odd question: “To whom does this verse apply?” And the answer given is even more unexpected: “Even to David, King of Israel.”13 Why such an unexpected answer? Why not say simply that the rule applies to all non-Levites? The Talmud’s answer is profound: even a monarch, who can generally do more or less whatever he wishes, has limited power—because even a king can no more assume levitical duties (if he is not a Levite) than a man can bear children. (David and all his descendants were members of the tribe of Judah.). The king has his role; the Levite has his.

Even David, because of whose merit the Jerusalem Temple was able to function,14 could not claim special status, special entrée. Once we start dismantling the hierarchy of responsibility and introduce false distinctions by blurring the real ones, we invite chaos. Anyone could take care of the Tabernacle, and for a while it might work to have this role open to anyone. But if anyone can do it, then no one is directly responsible, because there will always be others around to do it. Eventually, the task likely falls into the cracks and does not get done at all.

The idea of strangers not imposing themselves into responsibilities delegated to others has a further instructive nuance. The priests of Israel were members of the tribe of Levi, but the term “Levites” is generally used to denote those members of the tribe who were not descended from Aaron. So although it would be theoretically correct to refer to the priests as Levites (and the Torah, particularly in Deuteronomy, does that in many different passages, e.g. Deuteronomy 17:9, 18 and 18:1), current usage, as well as mainstream rabbinic usage in classical Jewish texts, is to use the term “Levite” to denote only members of the tribe of Levi who were not Aaronide priests. Both the kohanim (that is, the Aaronide priests) and the Levites have specific roles, relating to distinct sets of responsibilities. The priests dare not get involved in assuming levitical responsibilities, and the Levites dare not get involved in priestly responsibilities.

The author of Sefer Ha-innukh actually codifies this distinctiveness as one of the commandments:

At the root of the precept is that the service of these two groups is precious and sacred, therefore this work must be very carefully guarded from abandonment, laziness, and forgetfulness….There is no doubt that in any work incumbent on two people or more, negligence occurs more frequently than with a task that is incumbent on only one person….because many times, the two will rely on each other and between them the work will be left unattended from between them; this is clear to everyone.15

The author goes on to suggest that the same logic would apply even inside the priestly family, in that it is also prohibited for a kohen to assist in the work of a fellow kohen.16 This is quite remarkable, and vigorously reinforces the idea that delegated responsibilities dare not be encroached upon by outsiders—and not even by insiders. There is an impregnable wall separating those who are tasked from everyone else.

That this notion is itself a biblical precept is a powerful expression of how deeply the need to distinguish is embedded in Jewish tradition. The logic of the potential consequence deriving from failure to respect this border is compelling: if anyone can fulfill the task, eventually it will not get done. The lines of obligation are clearly drawn; erasing or blurring those lines is forbidden. The concept of distinction and delineation that undergirds the creation narrative, with which the Torah opens, is clearly meant to characterize human life in subsequent generations—and particularly Jewish life.


Holy and Ordinary

Lines are blurred when one is drunk. Nothing is clear, and the ability to distinguish is severely compromised. The priests were warned not to be inebriated when entering to perform their duties in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10:9). And the Torah goes on to say specifically that among their sacred tasks was the obligation “to distinguish between the sacred and the ordinary, and between the tamei and the tahor, and to teach the Israelites all of the statutes that God spoke to them through Moses” (Leviticus 10:10–11).17

Rabbi Baḥya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255–1340, called Rabbeinu Baḥya) makes a telling point in his comment to Leviticus 10:4, noting that anyone who must distinguish between the sacred and the ordinary, or who needs to render judgment, may not drink wine. In fact, Rabbeinu Baḥya explains the extra “ands” with which these verses begin to imply that the wine prohibition extends beyond the service in the sanctuary, to any situation demanding discernment. And discernment, as is clearly stated (Leviticus 10:10), refers to teaching the entire Torah.18 The entire Torah, as Hirsch so eloquently pointed out, is a Torah of delineation.19

The Tabernacle is sacred, distinct from other places. Within the Tabernacle itself, however, there is a sacred section and a more sacred section, which are set apart from each other by a curtain, a partition, which acts to “separate for you between the holy and the Holy of Holies” (Exodus 26:33). The Holy of Holies was a severely restricted area, reserved for the High Priest and only on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

This notion of delineation had already been introduced prior to the revelation on Mount Sinai. In preparation for revelation, Moses was to set boundaries around the mountain, preventing the people from ascending the mountain or even touching its edge (Exodus 19:12). These boundaries are part of the story of Israel at Sinai, a part that was no less visible to the Israelites camped at the foot of the mountain than was the mountain itself.

Revelation itself is all about setting borders, establishing uniqueness in many dimensions. God is unique; there are no pagan deities. Every day is important, but Shabbat stands in a separate category of time. Other men’s wives are off limits. (That would be adultery.) Someone else’s property may not be taken. (That would be theft.) Even the mental erasure of borders, through coveting what belongs to others, is strictly forbidden. The revelation at Mount Sinai, the Ten Statements, is thus all about legislating havdalah, the cornerstone of Judaism’s social as well as ritual laws.

Finally, consider the idea of havdalah as regards someone who accidently trespassed the sacred border of taking someone else’s most sacred possession, life itself. Such individuals were exiled to cities of refuge, which were set aside by Moses: “Then Moses set aside three cities on the bank of the Jordan, toward the rising sun” (Deuteronomy 4:41).20 The biblical word for “set aside” is yavdil, etymologically related to the word havdalah. The punishment for this accidental but serious action of the ultimate trespass, killing another person, removes the perpetrator from interactive society and requires that he or she be put into a place set apart. For one who disregarded the havdalah of life’s sanctity, the consequence is being placed in a city created by havdalah. Perhaps this expresses the hope that the accidental killer, when put into a place created by havdalah, will learn the lessons of the borders in life, of havdalah.


The World of Eating

Eating is an area of life that is suffused with delineation regulations: “This is the torah of the animal, the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and every creature that teems on the ground: to distinguish between the tamei and the tahor, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten” (Leviticus 11:46–47). Rashi, commenting on verse 47, notes that observing this law requires going beyond merely memorizing its rules. The explicit language of the verses leads to the conclusion that one must know, recognize, and be conversant in these regulations.

In our highly organized world, we do not pick up the true essence of this concept. To really delineate that which is permitted from that which is forbidden is an onerous, but necessary, task. If every Jew were to embrace these core concepts as part of his or her worldview, then the sense of separateness would become a major motif in daily discourse. Observing the laws of kashrut is relatively easy today: all one has to do is buy one product and avoid another. But the great goal of having the world’s foodstuffs available and then actively choosing only the permitted foods, thereby personally making the distinction between permitted and forbidden, between tamei and tahor—that is not so much a feature of our Jewish lives today. And that is something we should probably regret.

On this matter of distinguishing, Rashi makes a telling point. It is not necessary to obligate us to differentiate between a cow and donkey, as that distinction is quite obvious.21 The directive is for us to know what is permitted to us and what is forbidden, an exercise that is often more subtle and can be quite demanding. At the same time, it is a basic necessity for living life responsibly.


Among the Nations

Critical to the uniqueness of Israel is its rejection of idolatry. This was the differentiating mark of Abraham, called ha-ivri at Genesis 14:13. Usually translated as “the Hebrew,” the word ivri actually denotes being on a side—the Hebrew word for “side” is eiver—as was the case with Abraham, who was alone on one side and the rest of the world on another side.22 It was in the rejection of idolatry that Abraham stood apart from the rest of his society.

Later on, idolatry became the dividing line between Israel and the nations: “I am the Eternal your God, who has separated you from the nations” (Leviticus 20:24). This follows God’s admonition to Israel not to follow the ways of the idolaters, lest they be deemed unworthy of the Holy Land that God planned to bequeath to them. And a bit further on, this theme of separation is again emphasized: “You shall be holy unto Me, for I, the Eternal, am holy; and I have separated you from the nations to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). This is followed by the strict prohibition of sorcery, a clearly idolatrous practice.

In his comment to Leviticus 20:26, Rabbeinu Baḥya insists that this separateness is not an end in itself, but should rather be understood as a means to an end. He explains: “Your separating from [the nations] is for heaven, just as one distances oneself from sinfulness and accepts on oneself the obligation [to serve God].” One cannot be immersed in idolatry and at the same time embrace God. Indeed, one must move away from idolatry, by categorically rejecting it as out of bounds, in order to embrace God. In his comment to that same verse, Rashi is quite blunt: “If you are separated from them, then you are Mine.” His implication is perfectly clear: but if not, then you belong with other idolaters.

Separateness—in creation, in our human interplay with the world—is for a purpose. Just to be apart for no reason is of little value. If it is being separate in order to reject what must be rejected, namely idolatry, then it is separation with a purpose, as in freeing up the light from the darkness.

Abraham himself is perfect evidence of this separation with a purpose, separation undertaken in order to achieve a greater goal. He is said to have “made” souls (Genesis 12:5), which the midrash takes as referring to the people that he and his wife Sarah brought under the protection of God’s presence.23 As much as Abraham and Sarah were alone in their beliefs, compared with the rest of their immediate world, the point was not being alone for its own sake. Their legendary hospitality certainly does not fit the description of loners. They were unique in their beliefs, but fervently desired a world in which everyone was united in the belief in the one and only God.


The Unity of Israel

As much as separation, delineation, differentness, and uniqueness are dominant themes in Judaism, so is the notion of togetherness. The distinct components of the Jewish community are the components that, working together and working responsibly, make a viable community possible. When working at contrary purposes, the community splinters.

Consider God’s words to Moses and Aaron regarding Koraḥ and his effort to splinter the community, precisely by breaking down the boundaries God imposed on the Israelite nation: “Separate yourselves (hibbad’lu) from amid this assembly” (Numbers 16:21). The word hibbad’lu is from the same verbal root as havdalah. And as for one who would separate out to join evildoers, the Torah says that “the Eternal will set him aside (v’hivdilo) for misfortune from among all the tribes of Israel” (Deuteronomy 29:20). The word v’hivdilo, too, is clearly related to havdalah—once again bringing the havdalah theme to the fore.

Why was it necessary for God to do a havdalah with the renegade Koraḥ, to “set him aside…from all the tribes of Israel”? Couldn’t he just be punished without actually being removed from the midst of his own community? Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar, writing in his Torah commentary Or Ha-ayyim, explains that a Jewish soul has an affinity to all the tribes of Israel. Therefore, God has to separate this person’s soul from all the tribes, to ensure that the evil that befalls this person will not have harmful repercussions on those tribes.24 There is thus no inherent separation within the Israelite community. We are all intimately bound up together. Our destinies are intertwined to such an extent that even one who has rejected the community, who has made a personal havdalah, is still not fully separated. God has to finish the separation (as in the case of Koraḥ). This is quite a powerful way to appreciate what is meant by Jewish unity, a people spiritually joined at the hip.


Back to Havdalah

It is worthwhile now to circle back to the havdalah with which we are most familiar, namely: the Havdalah prayer recited on Saturday night following the conclusion of the Shabbat. The essential blessing of Havdalah extols God as the One who delineates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six working days. In light of our above discussion of the nature and importance of the havdalah concept in Judaism, the ceremony of Havdalah takes on an entirely new meaning:

  • Holy and ordinary: In life, there is the ordinary and the holy, the sacred. That is the all-encompassing divide.
  • Light and darkness: This all-important delineation was projected from the very distinguishing character of creation, based as it was on the notion of distinctiveness, on light and darkness, on discerning the relative importance of different values.
  • Israel and the nations: Israel, via its embrace of the Torah, thereby embraces the very blueprint of value differentiation. By the way, that embrace is available to everyone. Everyone can adopt the way of Israel, at the same time that people born into Israel can, and sadly do, occasionally opt out. The embrace is a conscious choice.
  • The seventh day and the six working days: It is these three delineating markers—the holy, the light, and the embrace of the Torah by Israel—that come together to highlight what Shabbat represents. Shabbat is the final day of creation, a day distinguished from the rest of the week as much as the day is separated from the night, a day that is therefore holy, a day embraced by Israel that invokes sanctity of creation and the uniqueness of Israel.

But Havdalah marks not only the conclusion of the Shabbat. It also marks the beginning of the six working days, wherein the havdalah theme will be central to every day of the week—simply because there is prioritization in everything we do, just as there is value hierarchy and differentiation.

In other words, the havdalah in play when we recite Havdalah on Saturday night is not only a separation from Shabbat. It is at the same time a havdalah that introduces the workweek. In the course of that entire week to come, whether we realize it or not, we will be making clear choices. In a sense, each of those choices will be a kind of havdalah. From creation on, havdalah has been a feature of human life…and will certainly continue to be.










1 Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1990), p. 7.
2 Ibid., pp. 9–12.
3 Ibid., p. 6.
4 Ibid.
5 Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch Translated and Explained, trans. Isaac Levy (London: Isaac Levy, 1963), p. 9 (comment to Genesis 1:4).
6 Ibid.
7 Sefer Ha-innukh, mitzvah 244.
8 Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, trans. I. Grunfeld (1962; rpt. New York, London, and Jerusalem: Soncino Press, 2002), chap. 57, pp. 288–289. The transliterated word appears in Hebrew letters in the original.
9 Hirsch to Genesis 1:11–13 in The Pentateuch, p. 18.
10 Hirsch to Exodus 23:19 in The Pentateuch, pp. 408–409.
11 Ibid., p. 411.
12 Ibid.
13 B. Shabbat 31a.
14 See B. Shabbat 30a.
15 Sefer Ha-innukh, mitzvah 389.
16 Ibid.
17 There is really no satisfactory translation for tamei and tahor. Some have used the English pairs “impure and pure” or “unclean and clean,” but these do not accurately convey the meaning of these terms. I have therefore chosen to retain the Hebrew (in transliteration).
18 Rabbeinu Baḥya to Leviticus 10:9, s.v. yayin v’sheikhar al teisht.
19 Hirsch, Horeb, section 57 (end), p. 289.
20 Cf. Numbers 35:14.
21 I am referring to Rashi’s comment to Leviticus 11:47, s.v. bein ha-tamei u-vein ha-tahor, and cf. also his comment to Leviticus 20:25, s.v. v’hivdaltem bein ha-b’heimah ha-t’horah la-t’mei·ah.
22 Bereishit Rabbah 42:13.
23 Bereishit Rabbah 39:14.
24 Ḥayyim ibn Attar, Or Ha-ḥayyim to Deuteronomy 29:19–20, s.v. v’om’ro.