Long before Juliet told her beloved Romeo that “parting is such sweet sorrow,” our tradition understood that goodbye is often complicated, and all the more so when you don’t want to say it. The poignancy of endings, and beginnings, seems to be at the heart of today’s conversation — a continuation of the discussion of Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and festivals. Literally meaning “separation,” or “distinction,” today the rabbis ask when we say Havdalah … and when we don’t. When, they seem to wonder, is parting in fact sweet sorrow?
Their answer, from a beraita, hearkens back to a principle that appears elsewhere in the Talmud:
One says statements of distinction (the core blessing of Havdalah) at the conclusion of Shabbat, and at the conclusion of festivals (meaning the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and at the conclusion of Shabbat that leads into a festival, and at the conclusion of a festival that leads into the intermediate (less holy) days of that festival. However, one does not mention distinctions at the conclusion of a festival that leads into Shabbat.
Havdalah is not just for Shabbat! It is also used to mark the end of the holy days of Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Havdalah is even used during the pilgrimage festivals, to mark the descent from the first portion of the festival which is chag (sacred) to the intermediate days which are not. When we are moving from a sacred time into the everyday, we need a blessing to mark the descent, to hold on to the holiness for as long as we can.
But what happens when we move back and forth between a festival and Shabbat — both of which are holy? According to this beraita, we only say Havdalah when transitioning from Shabbat to the festival, but not the other way around — because though both are holy, Shabbat is even more holy. Havdalah is reserved for moments when we step down in holiness, but not when we step up.
To help us understand the reasoning here, Rashbam suggests that we imagine the festival as an eparch, the title for the Greek governor of a province. The festival is a VIP, and if it is the only game in town, will be escorted out with all of the usual fanfare. But, Rashbam continues, imagine if the eparch was leaving and the king was arriving. All of the energy, all of the hoopla and the pomp and circumstance, would flow toward the king, because he is more important. In that case, says Rashbam, there would be no one left to say goodbye to the eparch because everyone is too busy greeting the king. In other words, Shabbat takes all.
Back on Shabbat 21, when the sages Hillel and Shammai were arguing about the order for lighting a hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah), we learned that we add a light for each night of Hanukkah (rather than subtract) and were introduced to the principle that we are meant to ascend in holiness, not descend. Today, we see this principle at work again through the blessings of Havdalah. We need to mark the occasion only when we are forced to let go of sacredness, when we are forced to move “downwards.” Parting is such sweet sorrow, then — unless what’s coming next is even better, even holier, than what just was.