A Sabbath Message: Havdalah – Separating from Our Extra Shabbat Soul

“Shabbat invites all those who need new energy…and are crying for the joy, the bliss, the unbelievable heavenliness of being alive in a world created by the Divine.  Shabbat is to get to the top of the mountain in one second, and there discover even higher mountains that we may have never ever seen before.”

– Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994)

With the arrival of Shabbat this week, I reflect upon the contrasts and contradictions in our lives. Our days and years are not meant to be the same – if they were, there would be boredom and no challenge (although I admit, right now, many of us are longing for a bit less challenge!) But in general, there are highs and lows, excitement and more even times, happy days and darker ones. Our sunny days give way to dark nights, but then we know the sun will rise again on a new day. And as a Jewish people, as I noted last week, our days are not meant to be the same either – some celebrate, some commemorate; some are holy, some are secular.

One of my favorite Jewish traditions celebrates this very notion of contrast: Havdalah. The word Havdalah comes from the Hebrew word l’havdil (to distinguish, to separate). The Havdalah ceremony is performed at the end of Shabbat to differentiate the holiness of the Sabbath day from the secular, “everyday” nature of the rest of the week. According to the Kabbalistic Jewish mystical tradition, we are given an extra soul on Shabbat, and during Havdalah, we relinquish that soul – in the hope that next week, when Sabbath returns, the extra Divine soul will return to us. As a young child, I anxiously waited for three stars in the sky – as it was only then that my father took out the Havdalah candle and associated items for the special ritual which we often performed outside as night fell. And then, the moment it was over and we sang the traditional greeting for a Shavua Tov (a good week)we immediately rushed to “call Savta” (my grandmother), who as an Orthodox Jew, did not answer the phone on Shabbat. She always waited for our call after the Sabbath every week.

The Havdalah ritual itself is beautiful – and as an added plus, musical and brief! When I was a little older and began going to a traditional Jewish summer camp, I quickly saw that Havdalah was a central ritual which the whole camp enjoyed together every week. In a camp of over 800 campers and staff members, it was quite a sight to see multiple circles on the main givah (hill) at Camp Ramah in Ojai with this giant simultaneous beautiful ritual by candlelight, under the stars. Our bodies swayed to the rhythm of the music and the sense that this experience of the Divine was really meant to be a “taste of the World to Come,” according to tradition. And in fact, the song we traditionally sing at the close of the ceremony is about the prophet Elijah, who is the link between this world and the next, as he will herald the coming of the Messiah when peace and justice will reign.

Perhaps Havdalah is something you might want to try at home on a Saturday evening. All you need is the braided Havdalah candle (and if you don’t have an official one of those, a few regular single-wicked candles joined together would do the trick!), wine or grape juice for the blessing and some spices (just about anything will do). The main part of the ritual includes four blessings: over the wine (a symbol of joy and to sanctify this ceremony); over the spices (to carry the sweetness of the Sabbath into our week); over the light of the candle (a visual reminder of the first fire of the new week and the return to our worldly pursuits); and finally, over the distinction itself between the holy and the secular in our lives. This is a beautiful way to mark the end of Shabbat and move yourself into the secular week. During this pandemic, many of these distinctions have become blurred, so adding meaningful definition to our lives can help. If this is a time to add new meaning to our lives, this could be a wonderful new tradition to try! To learn more about Havdalah – check out this complete guide to the ritual: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/havdalah-taking-leave-of-shabbat/

With peaceful blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and perhaps your own trip to the top of the mountain of the Divine,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service

Image caption: A divine farewell to Shabbat with a sunset hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland (Pictured: Talya Steinberg, 2017)