Berakhot 33

Wisdom and separation.

Today’s daf continues the discussion of how we handle interruptions to prayer before turning to a new mishnah and a new topic: the formula and order of the Amidah prayer.

The discussion that follows centers on how to do Havdalah, a multisensory ritual involving a candle and spices that creates a distinction between Shabbat and weekdays (the name literally means “separation”). But there’s actually another way to perform Havdalah, with a short addition to the Saturday night Amidah.

A debate then unfolds about where exactly in the Amidah we should recite the Havdalah addition. One opinion has it that Havdalah should be inserted into the fourth blessing of the Amidah, which asks God for knowledge. Two reasons are offered:

Rav Yosef said: Havdalah is recited in that blessing because it requires wisdom to distinguish between two entities, they established it in the blessing of wisdom.

The Rabbis offer a different reason: Because Havdalah is the distinction between the sacred and the profane, the sages established it in the blessing of weekdays. 

The rabbis choose the knowledge blessing as the home for Havdalah because it is the first one in the middle section of the Amidah that is recited only on weekdays. (On Shabbat, that section is swapped for verses dealing with the day of rest.) It seems logical to mark the conclusion of Shabbat in the first spot in the Amidah that is unique to weekdays, but Rav Yosef offers a deeper reason: the ability to distinguish between things is at the heart of knowledge.

Sometimes distinctions are more obvious, like night and day or right and wrong. But other times they are foggy and unclear. The conclusion of Shabbat might be a straightforward matter of determining when the sun has set, but the text of Havdalah links it to other separations — between the sacred and profane, between the Jewish people and the wider human community. Understanding how to navigate these polarities requires deep wisdom.

The daf goes on to explore how we ended up with a requirement to do two Havdalahs in the first place. In fact, we learn that initially Havdalah was only recited during the Amidah. Only once the Jewish community grew wealthy did it turn into a ceremony performed with wine. Today, traditional Jews do both. We preserve both versions that offer up two weekly opportunities to honor the distinctions we make in our lives, and the wisdom that makes them possible.

Read all of Berakhot 33 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 5, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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