Personally Connecting to Havdalah

Havdalah “on one foot”:

Havdalah is the ceremony we do at the end of Shabbat.

A Jewish Joke

- Knock knock

- Who’s there?

- A. Lee Yah

- A. Lee Yah who?

- [sung] Eliyahu HaNavi, Eliyahu HaTishbi…

Context: This Knock-knock joke can be used to introduce “Eliyahu HaNavi” in the Havdalah (“Separation”) ceremony at the end of Shabbat (or until Tuesday - Pesachim 106a). It’s a big hit with kids (also good at the Seder).

The Text of Havdalah

(ב) הִנֵּ֨ה אֵ֧ל יְשׁוּעָתִ֛י אֶבְטַ֖ח וְלֹ֣א אֶפְחָ֑ד כִּֽי־עׇזִּ֤י וְזִמְרָת֙ יָ֣הּ יְהֹוָ֔ה וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י לִֽישׁוּעָֽה׃ (ג) וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם־מַ֖יִם בְּשָׂשׂ֑וֹן מִמַּעַיְנֵ֖י הַיְשׁוּעָֽה׃

(2) Behold the God who gives me triumph!
I am confident, unafraid;
For Yah the LORD is my strength and might,
And God has been my deliverance.”
(3) Joyfully shall you draw water
From the fountains of triumph,

(ט) לַֽיהֹוָ֥ה הַיְשׁוּעָ֑ה עַֽל־עַמְּךָ֖ בִרְכָתֶ֣ךָ סֶּֽלָה׃ {פ}
(9) Deliverance is the LORD’s;
Your blessing be upon Your people! Selah.
(ח) יְהֹוָ֣ה צְבָא֣וֹת עִמָּ֑נוּ מִשְׂגָּֽב־לָ֨נוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב סֶֽלָה׃
(8) The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our haven. Selah.
(יג) יְהֹוָ֥ה צְבָא֑וֹת אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י אָ֝דָ֗ם בֹּטֵ֥חַ בָּֽךְ׃ {פ}

(13) O LORD of hosts,
happy is the one who trusts in You.

(י) יְהֹוָ֥ה הוֹשִׁ֑יעָה הַ֝מֶּ֗לֶךְ יַעֲנֵ֥נוּ בְיוֹם־קׇרְאֵֽנוּ׃ {פ}

(10) O LORD, grant victory!
May the Sovereign answer us when we call.-c

Context: This is the start of the introductory paragraph to Havdalah (Orach Chayim 296:1). It is a set of verses from the Biblical books of Psalms and Isaiah.

Why would we be singing about deliverance at the start of a new week?

(טז) לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וְשָׂשֹׂ֖ן וִיקָֽר׃
(16) The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.

כֵּן תִּהְיֶה לָּֽנוּ.

So be it with us.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Esther (except for the “So may it be with us” part, which isn’t anywhere in the Bible). It comes from the part where the Jews had deliverance from those who sought them harm. Traditionally, this verse is said first by the congregation in the reading of Esther, and everybody joins the leader in saying these words in Havdalah.

What “light and gladness” do you have in your life today?

(יג) כּוֹס־יְשׁוּע֥וֹת אֶשָּׂ֑א וּבְשֵׁ֖ם יְהֹוָ֣ה אֶקְרָֽא׃
(13) I raise the cup of deliverance
and invoke the name of the LORD.

Context: This is from the Biblical Book of Psalms. It is in the Hallel section of holiday services, but in a part that isn’t usually said out loud.

From what what would you like deliverance?

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּפֶן.

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

Context: This is the blessing over the grape juice or wine. We don’t actually drink immediately after saying this blessing. Grape juice / wine is present at moments of holiness and we are saying Kiddush now to bring holiness into the coming week.

What ways can you interact with others to bring holiness into the week?

(ג) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ‑יָ אֱ‑לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מִינֵי בְשֹמִים:

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates different types of spices.

Context: This is the blessing for smelling pleasant spices (also true for non-Havdalah spices). It is usually done over cinnamon or cloves, but could also be done over other pleasant spices. Traditionally a fancy spice box is used, on grounds of “Hiddur Mitzvah” (beautifying the commandments), but the original container for the spices is fine if that’s what you have.

In the Second Temple period, it was customary to burn spices on a small incense alter at the end of Shabbat. The custom of smelling myrtle leaves in a glass container dates from the 1200s in Germany, and the practice of decorating the vessel is known from the 1300s. The earliest such container that we still have, which is in the shape of a tower with a tapering roof, is from the 1400s.

There are at least four explanations for this custom, which dates back to the Mishnah (along with wine and the candle - Brachot 8:5). The first is that we have an extra soul on Shabbat and when it leaves we need to be revived or at least given something to feel better (see Ta’anit 27b:9 and Beitzah 16a:12). The second is that we want to cheer up our soul, because it’s sad that Shabbat has left (see Mishneh Torah, Sabbath 29:29). The third is that we want to take the sweetness of Shabbat with us into the coming week. The fourth is to awaken our senses to the beauty in the coming week.

Which explanation works for you?

What aspect of the Shabbat experience would you want to carry over into the week?

(טו) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא מְאוֹרֵי הָאֵשׁ:

Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the light of the fire.

Context: This is the blessing for the Havdalah candle, though you can say it on other flames during Havdalah. A Havdalah candle is unique by having multiple wicks (Pesachim 8a:4, Orach Chayim 298:2), ideally interwoven but not strictly necessary in an unusual situation. We don’t want to make a blessing in vain, so we use the light of the candle (Mishnah Brachot 8:6) by looking at our cupped fingers (Orach Chayim 298:3). This has the effect of showing the distinction between light and darkness on our own hand. Lighting the candle itself also shows a separation, specifically between Shabbat and rest of the week, because once Shabbat starts we don’t kindle fires (Exodus 35:1-3).

We have two lights that are separated to start Shabbat, and to end Shabbat we have at least two lights that are interwoven just like light / dark and Shabbat / the week meet at Havdalah time (and like Shabbat can bring unity into our lives). What opposites meet in your life at various times?

(יז) בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחֹשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:

(17) Praised are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who distinguishes between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six working days. Praised are You, O Lord, who distinguishes between the holy and the mundane.

Context: This is the final blessing in Havdalah. It is also contained in the blessing for wisdom in the Amidah said on Saturday evening (per Mishnah Brachot 5:2), a decision made by the members of the Great Assembly (444-164 BCE) (Brachot 33a). This blessing talks about different distinctions, such as between light and darkness (Genesis 1:4). The original text comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 103b:7). The phrase “sheishet y’mei HaMa’aseh” comes from Ezekiel 46:1.

Has there been a time when making distinctions has been challenging?

This blessing points out that being Jewish comes with its own experiences. What positive experiences have you had as a Jew?

(ג) אֵלִֽיָּהוּ הַנָּבִיא. אֵלִֽיָּהוּ הַתִּשְׁבִּי. אֵלִֽיָּהוּ הַגִּלְעָדִי. בִּמְהֵרָה יָבֹא אֵלֵֽינוּ עִם מָשִֽׁיחַ בֶּן דָּוִד:

Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah the Giladite, speedily (in our days) he will come to us with the Messiah the descendant of David.

Context: Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu HaNavi) is a Biblical character (I Kings 17 - 2 Kings 2). Supposedly he was taken up to Heaven in a chariot of fire, which may be why the prophet Malachi said that Elijah will come to announce the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 3:23). This is also why Elijah reappears in Jewish folklore to help people. The Rabbis believed that Elijah wouldn’t come on a Friday or Shabbat (Eruvin 43b, Mishnah Berurah 295:7), so that may be why we sing a song of yearning for Elijah when Shabbat ends.

Some people believe that all our problems will be solved in the Messianic Era, and others believe that we should do our part to make the world a better place while we’re waiting. What’s a problem in the world that you do or could do something to make a little better?

A Havdalah set, with a candle holder (and candle), Kiddush cup, and spice box.

Musical Versions of Havdalah

Context: This is a Hebrew Karaoke (Prayer-eoke, to use Rabbi Ahuva Zaches’ term) video for Havdalah. The first tune is by the second Modzitzer Rebbe, Shaul Yedidyah Eliezer Taub (1886-1947), who escaped Poland to Japan and then to San Francisco in 1940. He wrote many tunes for prayers (kippah tip to Dr. Natan Ophir).

The second tune (for the blessings themselves) is by Debbie Friedman, a Reform American Jewish singer-songwriter from 1971 until her death in 2011.

An a cappella version by the Israeli group “Kippa-live” can be found here: It features interludes from “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Harry Potter”, and “Lord of the Rings”.

What feelings do these musical settings evoke for you?

Context: This video shows the Debbie Friedman tune being sung across denominations and around the world. To learn the guitar chords, check out this video:

How does this tune tie into the idea of Jewish peoplehood for you?

Context: This is Havdalah at Camp Ramah Darom, Session A 2010 (or 2011). The first part is a tune written by Shlomo Carlebach.

How does this tune change the experience for you?

Context: This tune for the beginnings of Havdalah was written by Safam, a Jewish-American rock band, in 1986. It’s on their album “A Brighter Day”.

How does this musical setting make you feel?

With appreciation to Mark Silkoff, Rachel Buckman, Jeremy Borowitz, Lisa Greene, Nelly Altenburger, David Schlusselberg, Jonah Winer, Scott Bolton, Charles Sheer, Meyerhoff Center, Dr. Elizabeth Shayne, Moshe Segal, Siddur Lev Shalem, and Picture History of Jewish Civilization​​​​​​​ (ed. Dr. Bezalel Narkiss, 1970).

Appendix: Havdalah, a poem


By: Jamie Wendt

We tell time by three stars in the night sky,
then hold up the candle’s braid, curvy like hips in the dark.
Havdalah is a separation between holy and mundane.

My body, candlelike, submerged into women’s water
after my children were born, after I was done bleeding

for weeks. Blended wax, like bodies, wrapped around

each other in a force of mingling, lack of separation.
My children sip red wine after the blessing,
then we extinguish a candle into it, hissing dip. Separation.

Weaving wicks, tightly wrapped intimacy, dim and dimmer,
a new week, returning bare, unburdened, before.
Not burning ourselves out. But we cannot go back

to creaking floors and walls, silent fertile house.
Like I cannot unlearn my family’s history,
unsee flashes of a deep forest execution.

My son stands on a kitchen chair. My daughter sings Hebrew
words of praise, watching my lips, matching me in pitch.
Weeks center around repetition, blood cycles. Separation.