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The Kabbalah of Havdalah

The Kabbalah of Havdalah

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If there is no daat (discriminating intelligence), how can there be differentiation?

Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 5:2

In the Jewish home, the close of the Shabbat is marked with a special ceremony, called Havdalah ("differentiation"). Over a brimming cup of wine, to the multi-flamed light of a braided candle and the smell of aromatic spices, we recite: "Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d... Who differentiates between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of work."

Differentiation is at the heart of what we call morality. If theft or adultery are wrong, it is only because there is a real difference between mine and yours and between the wedded and the unwedded state. If ceasing work on Shabbat or eating matzah on Passover are meaningful deeds, this is only because Shabbat is truly different from Friday and matzah is truly different from leavened bread. If there is meaning and purpose to our actions, there must be true significance to the differences between things.

Differentiation, however, also implies a sameness to the things being differentiated. If Shabbat and Sunday looked, smelled and tasted differently to our physical senses, there would be no need to actively differentiate between them. Indeed, when the Torah employs the verb "to differentiate" (lehavdil), it is to distinguish between things that are essentially similar. A case in point is the concluding verse of Leviticus 11, the chapter which lays down the kashrut dietary laws. The verse reads: "To differentiate between the pure and the impure; between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten," regarding which our sages remark:

Need this be said regarding the difference between a donkey and a cow? ... Rather, this is to tell us to differentiate between the animal which had half its windpipe cut [during the slaughtering] and the animal which had most of its windpipe cut.... Need this be said regarding the difference between a wild donkey and a deer? Rather, this is to tell us to differentiate between an animal in which there developed a defect yet remains fit to be eaten and an animal in which there developed a defect which renders it unfit to be eaten (Rashi on verse, from Torat Kohanim).

In other words, havdalah requires the ability to look at two similar things and appreciate that, despite their elementary similarity, they are to be differentiated and held apart. In the words of our sages, "If there is no daat (discriminating intelligence), how can there be havdalah?"

A World of Words

The capacity to differentiate, as we have noted, is the basis for any moral vision of life. Chassidic teaching takes this a step further, demonstrating how havdalah is the essence of the created existence, of what we call reality.

An axiom of the Jewish faith is that G‑d is infinite--without beginning and without end. This raises the problem, addressed by all major Jewish philosophers, of how our world can possibly exist, since a truly infinite being precludes the existence of anything other than itself. Indeed, the Torah asserts that "There is nothing else besides Him." But what about ourselves, our world, our reality? Are these not existences besides Him?

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi lays the groundwork for a resolution of this problem by defining the created reality as divine speech. In the first chapter of Genesis, G‑d's creation of the world is described as a series of (ten) utterances: G‑d said, "Let there be light!" and there was light; G‑d said, "Let the earth sent forth vegetation," "Let there be luminaries in the heavens," "Let the waters spawn living creatures," and plants, stars and fish emerged into existence." Citing teachings from the Midrash, the Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria and Chassidism's founder Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Schneur Zalman deduces that these divine utterances are not merely the cause of these existences--they are these existences. What we experience as "light" is but the embodiment of G‑d's articulated desire that there be light; what we experience as a "tree" is but the embodiment of G‑d's articulated desire that there be a tree.

So the created reality is not, in truth, something else besides Him, any more than our spoken words are things distinct of ourselves. Speaking is a creative act; but when we speak we are not creating anything that is other than ourselves--we are giving vocal form to our own ideas, feelings and desires. In describing G‑d's creation of the world as a series of divine utterances, the Torah wishes to convey the idea that the world is not something distinct of its Creator, but His spoken words--His articulation of concepts and potentials which are an integral part of His being.

The implications of such a conception of ourselves and our world--of reality as divine speech--are numerous and manifold. One is the realization that the differences between things are secondary to a primary sameness that embraces them all. A language might include millions of words, but these are all variations on a handful of consonants and vowels. On a more basic level, these consonants and vowels are just variations on how a minute expulsion of breath is bounced off the speaker's vocal cords, tongue, palate, teeth and lips.

A tree might seem very different from a ray of light, as might a fish from a star. But each of these objects is, in essence, the same thing: a divine word, an articulation of divine will. In origin, they share a singular essence; their differentiation occurs at a latter stage, as they pass through the divine mouth that imparts to them their respective forms and characteristics.

Thus the Torah relates how, on the first day of creation, "G‑d differentiated between light and darkness." What can be more different than light and darkness? What differentiation is necessary between such obviously different phenomena? But light and darkness are both creations of G‑d; both are divine words, formulations of the same surge of divine will. Their distinction is the product of a divine act of havdalah, of a deliberate differentiation between two essentially synonymous realities.

Daat

In light of this, we can better understand the above-quoted Talmudic dictum regarding the connection between daat and havdalah. The Talmud is discussing the fact that in the evening prayers recited after the close of Shabbat, the text of the Havdalah is inserted in the prayer which begins: "You grant daat to man, and teach the human being understanding; grant us, from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge..." The reason for this placement, says the Talmud, is that "If there is no daat, how can there be havdalah?"

On the most basic level, the Talmud is saying that an act of havdalah requires the discriminating intelligence of daat. On a deeper level, it is saying that havdalah is possible only because "You grant daat to man"--only because G‑d Himself grants us the capacity to differentiate between various elements of His creation.

For if the world is divine speech, if all created things are essentially the same, how can we differentiate between them? And if we do differentiate, what significance can there be to our differentiation? We might discern light and darkness; we might identify certain things as holy and others as mundane; we might designate the first six days of the week for material achievement and its seventh day for spiritual rest; but if all of these are, in essence, divine words, what power have we to differentiate between them?

But G‑d wanted a moral world--a world in which the deeds of man are purposeful and meaningful. So He imparted variety, diversity and distinction to His creation, decreeing that the differences between things should possess import and significance. His act of creation was an act of havdalah--of differentiating between essentially similar entities. And He granted the human being a mind capable of appreciating the paradox of havdalah--the paradox of meaningful difference imposed upon intrinsic synonymy--thereby empowering us to implement, through our awareness and our actions, the differentiations He decreed in His world.

The Second Paradox

Havdalah carries another paradox--that its ultimate function is to join and unite the very things it comes to differentiate.

The Torah commands us to remember and to preserve the day of Shabbat--to distinguish it, in mind, word and deed, from the six days of work. Yet Shabbat is integrally bound to the other days of the week. It is the culmination of our weekday endeavors--the day on which all that we labored for and achieved in the preceding six days ascends on high, attaining its most complete and perfect realization. And Shabbat is the day from which all days are blessed--the source of the fortitude and energy that drives our efforts of the workweek that follows it.

We are told to preserve our uniqueness as Jews--to safeguard the delineation between Israel and the nations. Yet the people of Israel are designated to serve as "a light unto the nations," as the conveyers of the ethos and ideals of Torah to all inhabitants of the earth.

We are instructed to differentiate between the holy and the mundane--to embrace what is sacred and G‑dly in our lives while exercising wariness and restraint in the material aspects of life. At the same time, we are told that "the purpose of man's creation, and of the creation of all worlds, spiritual and material is to make for G‑d a dwelling place in the lowly realms"--to involve our everyday material pursuits in the quest to know and serve G‑d, thereby making Him at home in the lowliest, most mundane stratum of creation.

For it is only through our awareness and enforcement of the boundaries within creation that these objectives can be achieved. Only if Shabbat is preserved in its distinctiveness and transcendence can it elevate and empower the other six days of the week. Only in their uniqueness as G‑d's chosen people does the nation of Israel have anything of true value to offer the peoples of the world. Only when our spiritual life is kept inviolably apart from the coarsening influence of the material can it in turn sanctify the material by enlisting it to serve its spiritual aims.

From Unity to Symphony

Havdalah is the substance of our daily lives, as every hour and moment confronts us with the challenge to define and differentiate--to distinguish between right and wrong, between holy and mundane. But these delineations are merely a means to an end, a process springing from a primordial unity and leading toward a future synthesis.

In origin and essence, all is one. But an even deeper unity is achieved when differentiations and demarcations are imposed upon the primordial oneness, and its component parts are each given a distinct role in creations symphonious expression of the goodness and perfection of its Creator.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email permissions@meaningfullife.com.
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Irene Griffin April 1, 2013

Great explanation !! Thank you so much for this very clear and thorough lesson!
It has enlarged my understanding. HaShem has so much for us to learn of Him! Reply

socorro las vegas, nv April 9, 2010

teaching articles I agree with Vergie McCall. I, too thank you for your articles as I have always wanted to learn more of the Jewish people and their life. Yours are a great way to learn. Thank you for allowing us into your life and customs. It is an honor. Reply

Lee Pinero Everett, WA April 7, 2010

Kaballah of Havdalah Your article provided a picture of the bridge connecting Shabbat and weekly activities that follow. Although time during our week is not always full of profane events, after Shabbat we leave the refuge that lifted us above the raging waters of this world and into a day of rest, meditation and prayer. Shabbat, a space in time, synchronizes our lives with what G-d has created. We grow into agreement with G-d’s creation, which brings a holy purpose to our lives, preparing us to be lights in the world. This article helped me to differentiate between Shabbat and what happens when I step out of the taiva and into the real world. May Moshiach Come Now! Reply

Vergie McCall Va. Beach, Va. August 22, 2009

Havdalah Hello Rabbi,
I am Vergie McCall, I am learning Judaism and I have enjoyed reading and learning from you study. I want to thank you for your compassion in sharing the words of G-d with me and giving me a better understanding. Thank You,
again Reply

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