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What Is Havdalah?

What Is Havdalah?

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Havdalah is Hebrew for “separation” and refers to the verbal declaration made at the end of Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, in which the holy day is separated from the mundane period that follows. Since Jewish days begin and end with nightfall, havdalah may be said only once darkness has fallen on Saturday night. Calculate that in advance for any spot in the world here.

What Is It?

Havdalah is a multisensory experience that includes fire, spices and wine. Here is the procedure in brief:

● Grasping a cup brimming with kosher grape juice or wine, the leader recites a series of nine joyful quotes from the Hebrew Bible. The hagafen blessing, which is always said before drinking wine, is then recited, and everyone responds with “Amen.”

● The reader then says another short blessing, which is again followed by “Amen.” Everyone then takes a good whiff of aromatic herbs, oils or spices.

● After the next blessing, everyone responds with “Amen” and draws their fingers near the flame so that they can see the candle’s light reflecting on their fingernails.

● The reader recites a slightly longer blessing, which is followed by a final “Amen,” and then sits down to drink the wine.

You can read the full blow-by-blow procedure (and text) here.

If you’ll be participating in havdalah for the first time, check out our what-to-expect guide.

Why Do We Say Havdalah

“Remember the Shabbat day to make it holy,” reads the text of the fourth of the Ten Commandments.1 Our sages understand this to be an instruction to verbally declare Shabbat’s holiness when it arrives and (possibly also) when it departs. On Friday evening, we sanctified Shabbat with the kiddush; now, as we take leave of it after a night and day of Divine rest, we once again pronounce the holiness of the day over a cup of wine.

Paradoxically, this act of separation is what connects Shabbat with the rest of the week. When the boundaries between the holy and the ordinary are blurred, the holy is no longer holy and the ordinary is left with nothing to uplift it. By defining the separation of Shabbat from the workday week, the relationship between the two is also established—a relationship in which Shabbat imparts its transcendent vision to the rest of the week, and the six days of daily life feed into, and are sublimated within, the sanctity of Shabbat.

The basic havdalah formula was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly2 in the fourth century BCE. At that time, the people were very poor, and not everyone could afford a cup of wine for havdalah. They therefore instituted the havdalah prayer as part of the prayers. When the Jews became more financially stable, they formulated the havdalah prayer over wine. Then, as the economy continued to fluctuate, it was decided to keep both forms of havdalah (more on that below), and this is how things have remained until this day.

It is customary to fill the havdalah cup until it overflows its rim. This is symbolic of the overflowing cup of blessings we wish for in the upcoming week.

We smell aromatic spices during havdalah to uplift our spirits. Shabbat was a special time during which we were gifted with an “added soul.” Now that this extra measure of vitality and spirituality departs from us, we rejuvenate ourselves by smelling spices—smell being the most spiritual of the five senses.

The Midrash tells us that Adam and Eve first discovered, benefited from, and thanked G‑d for fire upon the close of the first Shabbat. For us, too, it is the first night of the week and the time for us to thank G‑d for the gift of fire, without which our nights would be dark, gloomy and cold. We use a braided candle with multiple wicks (or two little candles held together), to represent the multiple types and uses of fire that we enjoy. You can read why we specifically gaze at the fire reflected on our nails here.

Pre-Havdalah

The havdalah we make over wine is actually the second havdalah we make after Shabbat concludes. The first havdalah is in the form of a paragraph, beginning with the words “Ata chonantanu,” that is inserted into the Amidah (Silent Prayer) said after the conclusion of Shabbat.

Once night has fallen and this first havdalah has been said, activities that were forbidden on Shabbat (such as lighting the havdalah candle) may be performed. If you did not say Ata Chonantanu, you should at least say the words, “Blessed is He who divides between holy and profane,” before lighting the havdalah candle or doing any other non-Shabbat activity.

Havdalah Around the Year

Just like Shabbat is ushered out with havdalah, so are the holidays. The actual havdalah text is the same. However, the post-holiday havdalah does not include blessings for spices or fire. This special havdalah is said when holidays are followed by weekdays or chol hamoed (quasi holidays), but not when they are followed by a second day of holiday or by Shabbat.

On Sukkot, (post-Shabbat and post-holiday) havdalah is recited in the Sukkah (and the blessing of Lesheiv Basukah is added). On Passover, it is the custom that even the post-Shabbat havdalah be made without aromatic spices (because of a concern that the spices may contain chametz).

When saying havdalah after Yom Kippur, we use a fire (or a flame that was kindled from a fire) that was kindled before the onset of the holy day.

When Shabbat is followed by a holiday, the post-Shabbat havdalah is rolled into the holiday kiddush. This unique formulation of blessings is known as YaKNeHaZ, a mnemonic that lays out the order of the blessings:

Yayin: the blessing over wine
Kiddush: the blessing sanctifying the holiday
Neir: the blessing over the candle (We do not use a braided candle. Instead we gaze at the holiday candles that were lit prior to the meal.)
Havdalah: the actual havdalah blessing
Zeman: the Shehechiyanu blessing thanking G‑d for the joyous milestone

Footnotes
2.
Talmud, Berachot 33a.
Artwork by Sefira Ross, a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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