What is the Meaning of the Havdalah Ceremony

Learn how the Havdalah ceremony is used in Jewish culture to mark the end of special days.

The seventh day of the week, known as Shabbat or the Sabbath, is very significant in Judaism. It is a reminder of the day when the creator rested and keeping this day holy is a requirement in the Torah. After Shabbat, Havdalah is observed as a new week begins.

In this article, we cover all the main questions about Havdalah in the Jewish faith:

  • * The meaning and significance of Havdalah
  • * Shabbat and religious holidays
  • * The Havdalah ceremony

The Meaning and Significance of Havdalah

Before Shabbat or an important Jewish holiday, the kiddush ceremony is held. Havdalah is conducted similarly but after Shabbat. The meaning of the Hebrew word is separation. Havdalah is indeed a ceremony used to mark the end of the Sabbath symbolically and to usher in a new week. It separated the holy from the ordinary or every day. This separation applies both to Shabbat and other important religious holidays.

Shabbat and Religious Holidays

At the end of Shabbat, Jews hold the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday evenings once there are at least three stars that are visible in the sky. In some communities, it is common to extend the Sabbath by delaying the holding of Havdalah.

Havdalah is also conducted to mark the end of some biblical holidays. These are Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot in its first days, Simchat Torah, both the start and end of Passover, and Shavuot. Blessings also are said over the wine as for Shabbat Havdalah, but some parts of the ceremony are left out.

When there is a significant holiday coming after Shabbat, the Havdalah service and the holiday kiddush merge. There are some differences, however, and these are looked at when we discuss the actual ceremony itself.

The Havdalah Ceremony

Similar to the kiddush blessing, a cup of kosher wine, grape juice, or other available beverage is a significant part of the ceremony. The leader recites the Havdalah blessing over this cup. Another element of Havdalah is the use of spices known as besamim in Hebrew. These are usually in a spice container that is very artistic and decorative. This container design is in honor of the Judaic law or mitzvah. The spice container is passed around the room to allow all the participants to smell the fragrance.

The spices used can be branches of aromatic plants, as in many Mizrahi and Sephardi communities. Alternatively, the Ashkenazim community commonly uses cloves.

Another element of the ceremony is the use of a Havdalah candle. This candle is unique in that it is specially braided to have more than one wick. Once the candle is lit, the leader can then speak the blessing. If this kind of candle is not available, people can make do with two candles and join the two flames when it is time to recite the blessing.

When a particular part of the blessing is recited, it is common for everyone to lift their hands. As the participants hold their hands to the candle, they must gaze at the candlelight’s reflection in their fingernails.

One important note to make about Havdalah is that this Jewish ceremony requires that each participant engage all five of their senses. The sense of touch is used by feeling the cup, and the other senses are utilized when one smells the spices, hears the blessing, tastes the wine, and sees the flames of the candle.

The different steps outlined above mark a typical Havdalah ceremony. At the end of it, any wine that is left over is poured into a small dish. The candle is put out by dipping it into this wine. This action shows that the candle was lit for the Havdalah blessing and not for another reason. Some Jews also dip their fingers into the bowl of leftover wine and then touch their pockets or their eyes. This practice comes from the scripture Psalms 19 verse 9, which says, “The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.”

After the whole ceremony, the participants join together in song. They can sing Eliyahu Hanavi, which means Elijah the Prophet or HaMavdil Bein Kodesh LeChol, which means who separates Holy from ordinary/weekday). They then bless one another by wishing each other a good week in Hebrew or in Yiddish.

When Havdalah is recited following biblical holidays, the blessings spoken are the one over the wine and the one for separation. The parts of the ceremony left out are the prayers over the candle and the use of spices. One exception is during Yom Kippur when the prayer over the Havdalah candle is also recited.

For holidays after Shabbat, the prayer over the spices and the Havdalah candle are not used. Instead, the leader recites the prayer over festival candles. Usually, the prayers are to separate holy days from ordinary days. At these times, the prayers distinguish one level of holiness from another. This distinction shows that the holiday is of a lower degree of holiness than the Shabbat day, which has just ended.

The introductory blessing for Havdalah, when translated into English, goes as follows, “Behold, God is my savior, I will trust God and not be afraid, for my strong faith and song of praise for God will be my salvation. You will draw water joyously from the wellsprings of salvation. Salvation is God’s; may Your blessing rest upon Your people. God of the heavenly armies is with us; the Lord of Ya’akov is a fortress protecting us. God of the heavenly armies, happy is the individual who trusts You. God, redeem us! The King will answer us on the day we call God. The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor; may we have the same. I will raise the cup of salvation and call out in the name of God.”

The Havdalah blessing text is composed of, in sequential order, an introductory blessing, a blessing over wine, a blessing over spices, a blessing on the candle, and a blessing on separation. The Havdalah is a Jewish blessing spoken to separate the end of holy days and holidays and ordinary days.

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