Havdalah: Taking Leave of Shabbat

We say goodbye to the Sabbath in a bittersweet ceremony that employs wine, fragrance, and candlelight.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children, published by Golden Books.

At the end of the Shabbat day, when three stars appear, it is time for the brief ceremony of Havdalah (literally, separation or distinction), at which time we take leave of Shabbat. Our rabbis teach that on Shabbat, we are given an extra soul. At Havdalah we relinquish that extra soul, but hope that the sweetness and holiness of the day will remain with us during the week. We take a cup of wine, a box of spices, and a beautiful braided Havdalah candle, and we sing or recite the blessings.

These blessings talk about distinctions between the holy and the everyday, between light and darkness, between the people Israel and the other peoples of the earth, and between the seventh day of rest and the six days of work. We then make a blessing over the wine, a symbol of joy, to sanctify the moment, and we sniff the spices to carry the sweet spice of Shabbat into the week and to wake us gently to our earthly responsibilities. Then we use the light of the candle by looking at our fingernails and palms in the light with our hands palms-up, making finger-shadows on our hands that display the distinction between light and darkness.

This light is the first fire of the new week. It is a sign that the time to begin creating again has arrived. No more dreamlike days until next week. It is now time to invest ourselves in our work again. As we make the transition back to our week, we also make the connection between creation and the messianic era (a time of justice and peace) by invoking the prophet Elijah. Tradition teaches that he will herald the coming of the Messiah.

Some add that Miriam the prophetess will lead the Jewish people in joyful song and dance to a time of perfection. We then drink the wine, douse the candle, and wish each other a good week. Shabbat is a taste of that perfection, but our work in the world is needed to bring it about.

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Rabbi Susan Silverman lives with her family on Kibbutz Ketura. She is the co-author, with her husband, Yosef Abramowitz, of Jewish Family & Life, Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today's Parents and Children. She is currently at work on a memoir and theology of adoption called Blessed Are They Who Dwell in Your House.

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