12 November 2021

The Spicebox of Earth
and welcoming the
Sabbath in Venice

Two 18th century Sabbath spice boxes, part of the ritual of welcoming the Sabbath, in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I arrived back in Dublin from Venice late this afternoon after a five-day city break to celebrate some family birthdays and anniversaries. Throughout this week, in my prayer diary each morning, I have introduced the five surviving, working synagogues in Venice, and in my prayer diary tomorrow morning I plan to introduce the Jewish Museum in Venice.

On the Sabbath, Jews say, the ‘Sabbath Queen’ or the ‘Sabbath Bride’ descends from Heaven to heal the sufferings of the Jews. The arrival and departure of ‘Her Majesty’ is marked by ceremonies. When she enters, everybody is happy; when she leaves, there is a strange sadness. But people take comfort in a symbolic tradition that includes inhaling the aroma of spices contained in an ornamental box, often made of silver, the spice box.

Spice-boxes are an essential part of Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה, ‘separation’), the ceremony marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week. Like kiddush, Havdalah is recited over a cup of wine. The ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices.

Havdalah engages all five senses: to feel the cup, to smell the spices, to see the candle flame, to hear the blessings, to taste the wine.

Spices in Hebrew, are usually kept in decorative spice-boxes to beautify and honour the mitzvah, and are handed around so that everyone can smell the fragrance. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, branches of aromatic plants are used for this purpose, 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.

The central blessing of the Havdalah is:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe
Who distinguishes
Holiness from the everyday,
Light from dark,
Israel from the nations,
The seventh day from the six workdays.
Blessed art thou, God,
Who distinguishes holiness from the everyday

As people recite the words ‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, bo’re m’orei ha’esh,’ they hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails.

As Havdalah concludes, the leftover wine is poured into a small dish and the candle is extinguished in it, a sign that the candle was lit solely for the mitzvah of Havdalah. In a reference to Psalm 19: 9, ‘the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,’ some people dip a finger in the leftover wine and touch their eyes or pockets with it.

After the Havdalah ceremony, it is customary to sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and to bless each other, Shavua’ tov, ‘Have a good week.’

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 from the Books of Isaiah and Esther and the Psalms. 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 the holy and the profane are virtually identical between the traditions. The phrase בין ישראל לעמים, bein Yisrael l’amim, ‘between Israel and the nations,’ is based on Leviticus 20: 26.

The Spice-Box of Earth became the most popular and commercially successful of Leonard Cohen’s early books, established his poetic reputation in Canada, and brought him a measure of early literary acclaim.

My copy of this book, to paraphrase words in another Leonard Cohen song, ‘has grown old and weary,’ or, rather, it is battered, stained and dog-eared. As I read through it the other evening, I could remember which poems I had selected for poetry readings in Wexford in the early and mid-1970s, including ‘I have not lingered in European monasteries’ and ‘The Genius.’

In Out of the Land of Heaven, the poem that gives this book its title, Leonard Cohen writes:

Out of the Land of Heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.

The poem seems to be a verbal invocation of a painting by Marc Chagall. The rabbi thrusts his hands into the ‘spice-box of earth’:

Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring
[for the Sabbath Queen]

And he tells them:
The Queen makes every Jew her lover.

The book concludes with ‘Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal’ and the final verse is an ‘Inscription from the family spice-box’:

Make my body
a pomander for worms
and my soul
the fragrance of cloves.

Let the spoiled Sabbath
leave no scent.
Keep my mouth
from foul speech.

Lead your priest
from grave to vineyard.
Lay him down
where air is sweet.

Following the success of The Spice-Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen retreated for several years to the Greek island of Hydra, where he worked on more poems and songs.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, Creator of all kinds of spices.

A variety of spices on sale near Rialto Bridge in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Shabbat Shalom

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