Sunday, January 1, 2006

Havdallah

One of the more beautiful and touching ceremonies in Jewish tradition is the ritual of Havdalah. Havdalah literally means separation. This ritual is most commonly done at the end of Shabbat, but it is also performed at the end of festivals as well.
The ritual of Havdalah is comprised of four blessings and it begins with the blessing over a cup of wine or grape juice. It is customary to fill the cup until it is overflowing as an expression of hope that the week will be filled with abundance of both goodness and prosperity. However if wine is not available, one can use just about any other beverage except water. These beverages could include tea or even beer. Beer by the way is the beverage of choice for the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Tisha b’Av.
The next blessing is over the spices, besamim, which are usually held in a special container. These containers, in following in the tradition of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah), are often times extraordinary pieces of art themselves. They can be in a variety of shapes and made of simple or exotic materials like wood or silver. The spices are usually cloves or cinnamon though one can also use myrtle leaves. According to Moses Maimonides, the soul is saddened by the exit of Shabbat, but is soothed by the fragrance of the spices.
The third blessing is over the flame, aish. There needs to be a combination of at least two flames because of the use of the plural term “lights” in the blessing, “who creates the lights of the fire.” The candles used nowadays often have as many as six wicks and are made of colorfully interwoven strands. When the blessing is recited it is also customary to look at the light reflecting off of one’s fingernails. There is also a belief that the person who holds the candle during the service should hold it up as high as he or she can reach because the height of the candle signifies how tall their future spouse will be.
The last blessing of Havdalah is the blessing of separation, meant to differentiate Shabbat from the rest of the week. At the conclusion of this blessing one then drinks most of the wine and then extinguishes the candle in the remainder. In many communities it is customary to then sing songs about Elijah the Prophet expressing the hope that he will help hearken the true and lasting Shabbat, so we can all be at peace. There are also some who then dip their fingers into the wine dish and then touch their eyelids and inner pockets to invoke a blessing for the week.
Havdalah is both a simple and beautiful ceremony that can be incorporated into your home lives, and makes for a great way to mark the end of Shabbat as a family.

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