04 June 2021

Making light and becoming God’s
‘partners in the work of creation’

Havdalah at the end of Shabbat engages all five senses

Patrick Comerford

Many people are aware of Jewish customs associated with welcoming Shabbat on Friday evenings. But I wonder whether many people outside Jewish circles are aware of Havdalah and the customs associated with the end of Shabbat on Saturday evenings.

Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה‎, ‘separation’) is a ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and ushers in the new week. This ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices. Shabbat ends on Saturday night after the appearance of three stars in the sky.

Havdalah engages all five senses: feeling the cup, smelling the spices, seeing the flame of the candle, hearing the blessings and tasting the wine.

Spices (besamim), kept in decorative spice boxes to beautify and honour this mitzvah, are handed around so that everyone can smell their fragrances. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions, branches of aromatic plants are used, while Ashkenazim have traditionally used cloves.

A special braided Havdalah candle with more than one wick is lit, and a blessing is recited. If a special havdalah candle is not available, two candles can be used, and the two flames joined when reciting the blessing.

As the candle is lit, people hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails. At the end, some or all of the leftover wine is poured into a small saucer and the candle is quenched in it.

The text of the Havdalah service exists in two main forms, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The introductory verses in the Ashkenazic version (beginning הנה אל‎, Hinei El) are taken from the books of Isaiah, Psalms and Esther. In the Sephardic liturgy, the introduction begins with the words ראשון לציון‎ (Rishon L’tsion) and consists of biblical verses describing God giving light and success interspersed with later liturgical prose. The four blessings over the wine, spices, candle and praising God for separation between holy and profane are virtually identical in both traditions.

The late Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, has said that Havdalah is to the end of Shabbat what Kiddush is at the beginning: the marking of a transition from secular to holy time and vice versa. He says it fulfils the commandment to ‘Remember the Sabbath day,’ understood by the Sages to mean ‘Remember it at the beginning and at the end’ – in both cases over a cup of wine.

He writes that its deeper meaning recalls the moment at which Adam and Eve, exiled from Eden, prepared to enter for the first time the world outside, with its darkness and danger. As a gift, God showed them how to make light, ‘Hence the light of Havdalah.’

He says this ‘profound parable is the reverse of the Greek myth of Prometheus – who stole fire from the gods and was sentenced to everlasting torment.

‘Judaism taught that God wants and blesses human creativity. Day 8, for humans, was the counterpart to Day 1 for God. Just as God began creation by making light, so he taught humans how to make light – inviting them to become ‘his partners in the work of creation.’

Shabbat Shalom

Decorative spice-boxes in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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