JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review March 8, 2002 / 24 Adar, 5762

The Havdala ceremony

By Rabbi Berel Wein

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE ceremony that concludes the Sabbath day, as well as the conclusion of the holidays of the year, is called "Havdala" --- separation. The central idea that this ceremony signifies is the clear message of Judaism that as far as spiritual matters are concerned, not everything is to be treated equally.

One of the glaring weaknesses of current Western society and politics is its tendency towards moral equivalency. The victim and the perpetrator, the aggressor and the one who defends one's self, the normal and the abnormal, are all somehow to be treated equally. There is no standard of right and wrong, good and bad, justified behavior and unwarranted actions present in much of our modern world. Everything is purely relative.

This absence of differences flies in the face of Jewish traditional values that are careful to delineate levels of morality, goodness and holiness. It is this ability to separate and delineate, to judge carefully and recognize differences, that lie at the basis of Judaic practice, ritual, Torah study and worldview. And it is the "Havdala" ceremony that most clearly illustrates this facet of Jewish thought and behavior.

The "Havdala" ceremony contains a text that expresses this idea simply and completely. It remarks upon the differences between light and dark, between the holy and the profane, between the sanctity of the Sabbath day and the days of the workaday week.

It also refers to the uniqueness of the Jewish people and acknowledges the concomitant uniqueness of the covenant that binds Israel to its G-d. It strengthens the idea of the Sabbath by separating it from the other days of the week and emphasizing its special status as the basis of the Jewish concept of time and of G-d as the Creator of the universe. This understanding of the Sabbath day as the center point of Jewish time and as the source of the holiness of time itself is further reinforced by the inclusion in the "Havdala" service of the ritual of smelling sweet spices in order to "restore our souls."

The Jewish tradition is that on the Sabbath, each of us receives an extra measure of spirituality -- "an extra soul" -- and sanctity. When the Sabbath departs, so does this "extra soul." To alleviate this sense of loss, which I can personally attest to as many times being real, and restore our spirits, the rabbis promoted the custom of introducing the fragrance of the sweet smelling spices into the "Havdala" service.

As with many other Jewish rituals, the "Havdala" service and blessings are conducted over a cup of wine. Wine is the drink of importance in Jewish tradition and therefore lends an aura of solemnity and importance to the accompanying ritual itself.

Another custom that forms part of the "Havdala" service is the blessing of thanks for fire. This blessing is recited over a multi-wicked candle commonly marketed as a "Havdala candle." This candle is currently available in a great variety of shapes and colors and has lately become the object of much creative artistry, especially in Israel.

Jewish legend tells us that the invention of fire by man, the basic requirement for any sort of technical progress in civilization, occurred on the night after the first Sabbath. Thus the "Havdala candle" also symbolizes man's unending and innate drive to create, invent, and attempt to make life physically more comfortable. As such, it serves as the proper introduction to the week of work and labor that follows the end of the Sabbath day. It is the harbinger of the "good week" to come.

The traditional Jewish greeting one person to another on Saturday nights is "Good Week." Thus, the Jewish greetings for the week's events are two -- "Good Sabbath/Shabat Shalom/Ah gutten Shabbes" and "Good Week/Ah gut vach." And in reality that pretty much sums up the cycle of time of the week, if not even of Jewish life itself.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at RabbiWein.com. Comment by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2002, Rabbi Berel Wein