What Is Havdalah?
Shabbat ends with a short special service called Havdalah. What is it, and what can we learn from doing it?
The word Havdalah means to differentiate, or to distinguish, and it’s also the name of a short ceremony we do after sundown on Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat. The purpose of Havdalah is to distinguish between the Shabbat that we have just experienced and the week that we are about to enter, both as an existence in time and as a feeling of existence.
Three blessings are said (in addition to a fourth, special blessing that’s specifically for Havdalah):
The first is on a cup of wine, which is a symbol of joy. We take pleasure in what we have accomplished – a successful and spiritually uplifting Shabbat! – and hope that it will continue to grow into the week.
The next is on spices – a lot of people use cloves – whose fragrance we inhale to comfort our soul, so to speak, over losing the spiritual power of Shabbat.
Finally, we make a blessing on a flame, which symbolizes light and darkness and the ability to see the difference in a very deep way.
The greatest tool we have for appreciating anything is the ability to distinguish and differentiate. When we see things as rare and , they stand out as special, and somehow have their own place in the world.
Yet, all too often, we have a hard time utilizing this tool and seeing things for their own ness. Masses of people just become ordinary beings. Beautiful sunsets start to look all the same.
This light and darkness symbolize wisdom and confusion, and we hold our hands before the flame in order to see the difference.
Our challenge is to discern and see the minute differences that exist in the world in order to appreciate their rare and qualities and thus take pleasure in their existence.
It takes effort to refine this ability.
In the Havdalah ceremony, we set a braided candle aflame and hold up our fingers to see the light and shadows dancing upon them. This light and darkness symbolize wisdom and confusion, and we hold our hands before the flame in order to see the difference.
When we contrast understanding with the tragedy of confusion, we differentiate and gain a deep appreciation for wisdom.
Shabbat is over. We mark the ending with Havdalah and recognize the beginning of a week. But we also mark the difference in how we will live the week.
Shabbat is a rare and gift. Appreciating its beauty and understanding the depths of its wonder sometimes means seeing it in contrast to the rest of the week.
And Shabbat is a different plane. When it ends, it is not just that the clock has ticked away, it is that the level that we have enjoyed has also come to an end. For the week is not Shabbat. If we have used the Shabbat properly however, we may be able to infuse some of it into our week.
Some people have a custom of lighting two additional candles, after the ceremony with the Havdalah flame, as a way we can try and stretch out that light that we have gained just a little bit longer.