Share a Prayer: Havdala

Hi

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look at it.

More so than any other nation, the Jewish People sanctifies time; even more so than objects, places or spaces. A wise professor once observed that the reason for this phenomenon is that while objects can be confiscated or stolen and places can be captured or destroyed, time is immutable – no matter where we find our selves, no can ever take time away from us. Thus Shabbat, that 25 hour period of time beginning with candle lighting eighteen minutes before sunset on Friday evening, is sanctified, guarded, revered and celebrated by Jews no matter where in the world they are, no matter what their station in life.

When Shabbat draws to a close and the ordinary, mundane days of the week begin to approach, feelings ranging from sadness to trepidation threaten to darken the joyous and peaceful disposition of the Sabbath. In order to soothe our feelings and ease the transition from the sacred time of Shabbat to the ordinary time represented by the rest of the week, our sages ordained the Havdala (differentiation) ceremony. Thus in Jewish homes and synagogues around the world, people gather together as darkness fills the sky on Saturday evening. Illuminated by the glow of a multi-wicked candle we raise a cup of wine, smell fragrant spices and bid a bittersweet farewell to Shabbat.

Although the obligation to say the Havdala is codified around the first century C.E. in the Talmud (Berachot 33a), tradition ascribes the original mandate of this ceremony to the Men of the Great Assembly who ruled and adjudicated the Jewish people from 410-310 B.C.E. Ismar Elbogen, the highly respected scholar of Jewish liturgy traces the roots of Havdala to a custom practiced by ancient sages. These scholars would gather for a festive meal just as Shabbat was drawing to a close. After sundown, the first fires of the week would be kindled and vessels containing hot coals on which incense was burning would be passed among the participants. Of Corse blessings would be said over the fragrant incense and, at the grace after meals, a prayer noting the transition from Shabbat to the weekdays would be included. At some point, the Havdala blessings were separated from the meal and became a distinct ceremony.

The Talmud, as noted above, mandates the recitation of two forms of the Havdala, in order to properly mark the transition out of Shabbat. The first Havdala blessing is said in the context of the prayer for wisdom as part of the Amidah for Saturday evening. A formal Havdala ceremony utilizing spices, a multi-wicked candle and a cup of wine, comprises the second form of Havdala. A.Z. Idelsohn, the renowned musicologist and expert on Jewish liturgy notes that texts of Havdala prayer can be found in the earliest know prayer books, the 9th Century Seder Rav Amram and the 12th Century Machzor Vitry.

Havdala in its full form consists of two distinct sections, an introductory paragraph and a series of Blessings. Concentrating on the notion of comfort and support, the introductory paragraph is comprised of verses from the Psalms, the Prophets and the book of Ester. This beautiful poetry provides a measure of comfort and assurance as the week with all of its uncertainly and travails approachs. “Behold, God is my salvation I will trust in God and not be afraid…” (Isaiah 12:2) is the first verse of this soothing paragraph. The notion of salvation is furthered by the phrase, “Ushaftem Mayim B’Sason… may you joyously draw waters from the wells of deliverance.” Rabbi Ruven Hammer, the brilliant commentator on our Siddur points out the power of the imagery of water as a source of life and hope – especially poignant at this point in the service. These words also form the text of a classic Hebrew folk song and dance. A phrase based on a verse from the book of Ester, “La Y’hudim Hayita Orah V’ Simcha V’Kar, [ken t’yeh lanu], and the Jews enjoyed light and gladness, joy and honor” is a central part of this introductory section. It is customary for the congregation to recite this phrase first and then have it repeated by the leader. Interestingly, this form of repetition is also employed on Purim when this verse is read form the Megilah.

Four blessings make up the main portion of Havdala; wine, spices, light and Havdala (differentiation). As we transition from Shabbat, these items are part of the daily routine that shapes the work week but they also have deep significance and meaning. From Brit Milah (Bris) to weddings to Shabbat to Festivals, wine is the vehicle though which we sanctify Jewish occasions. Perhaps, as one commentator suggested, the reason for this is that wine is like Jewish tradition, the older it gets, the better quality and value it has.

According to tradition, each Jewish soul is joined by an additional soul, a “Neshama Y’teira” for Shabbat, thereby doubling our potential for joy and fulfillment on the Sabbath. The ancient Machzor Vitry explains that as we inhale the fragrant spices the gloom of the departure of this extra soul together with the end of Shabbat is mitigated; our sadness is slightly diminished.

Light was very first item God created. As we conclude the Shabbat ordained by God as a means of resting from creation we kindle the flames of a candle as our first act of creation for the week. This reminds us that as we begin our week of labor and creativity we are partners with God in the continuing process of creation and in the effort to perfect the world under Gods dominion. The many wicks of the candle also represent the many forms of light God created and our responsibility to be a “light unto all of the nations.” As we say the blessing over the candle, we make use of the light by cupping our hands and pointing our fingernails toward the glow. In this way we can see in our own hand the distinction between light and shadow.

The final blessing is the Blessing of Havdala. As Jews we are command to distinguish between that which is Holy, i.e. unique, special, one of a kind, and that which is ordinary or common. This blessing gives some wonderful examples of such distinctions:Israel versus other nations, light versus darkness and Shabbat versus the six days of the work week. In conclusion the blessing thanks the Almighty for distinguishing between the sacred and the ordinary.

After the candle is extinguished in the wine, it is traditional to sing the hymn, “Hamvdil Ben Kodesh l’chol, who distinguishes between the sacred and the ordinary.” The song asks that our descendants and prosperity be increased as the sands of the beach and as the stars in the sky. It is also customary to sing Eliyahu Ha Navi, Elijah the prophet. It has long been held that the redemption we yearn for will come after Shabbat and be heralded by the arrival of the great prophet Elijah. Finally we all sing and bless each other with “Shavuah Tov – a good week.”

Coming together as a community in sincere solidarity to say farewell to Shabbat in this poignant matter is a profound experience. With the exception of CampRamah, there is no better place to experience this most moving and meaningful ceremony than at TempleSinai. We gather in a circle of camaraderie and intone the magnificent setting of the Havdala blessings by Debbie Friedman as the radiant light of the candle reflects in the blissful faces of the people of all ages who sing together with robust enthusiasm. At the conclusion of the Havdala, after having embraced each other and wishing one another a hearty “Shavuah Tov – a good week” we are lead in spirited Israeli dancing by students who attend Camp Ramah Darom and other Jewish summer camps. There are no accurate words to articulate the level of beauty, peace, excitement, pride and joy that all who attend Havdala experience. Perhaps the best way to capture the feeling is the notion that for that moment we truly feel as though we are partners with the Creator of the Universe in making the world a better place – at least in our tiny corner anyway.

Please join us on Shabbat afternoon (times vary according to sundown, check the synagogue email or office for details.) You and your entire family will be treated to a brief Mincha (afternoon) service, a yummy Seuda Shlishi (third Shabbat meal) and, following an extremely quick Ma’ariv (evening service) the most meaningful moment of the week – Havdala.

Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English.

Here is a link to Havdala at Camp Ramah Darom

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at cantor@sinaihollywood.org.

To learn more please check my Ehazzan Blog

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

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