So you’ve been invited to a havdalah ceremony, and aren’t sure what to expect? Here’s what you need to know.

What is Havdalah?

Shabbat begins before sunset on Friday evening, and ends after nightfall the following night. (The time varies by location and time of year.)

After the holy day has ended, we mark its departure with a special multisensory ceremony that involves a cup of wine, sweet spices and a flame. Here is what you’ll see happen:

How is Havdalah done?

The person leading havdalah will pick up a brimming cup of wine (or grape juice), which signifies our wish for a week overflowing with blessing, and will recite a number of faith-themed verses from the Hebrew Bible. One of these verses, a quote from the Book of Esther that “the Jews had light, gladness, joy and honor—so let it be with us,” is said aloud by everyone else as well. (Here is the transliteration: la-yehudim ha-yeta orah vesimchah vesimcha ve-sason viyekar, kayn tih-yeh la-nu. If you do not know the Hebrew, it’s okay just to listen.)

Next, he will pick up something sweet-smelling (typically cloves and/or myrtle), say a blessing (to which you respond “amen”), take a sniff and pass it around. When it comes to you, just take a sniff and pass it along to the next person. We do this to “revive” our souls, which have been saddened by the departure of the holy day of rest.

After everyone has had their turn, he will recite another brief blessing (again warranting an “amen” from you) and then lift up his fingers close to the flame and look at his fingernails in the candle’s glow. You can do the same. This is reminiscent of the first time Adam and Eve used fire, on the night following the first, brilliant, Shabbat of history.

Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat, includes wine, spices, and a flame.
Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat, includes wine, spices, and a flame.

He then picks up the cup of wine and recites a final blessing, the actual havdalah, marking the division from holy and the ordinary.

After he finishes (and you say “amen”) he will sit down, drink the wine, and extinguish the flame in the wine in his saucer. Some people also have the custom to pour wine from the cup onto the saucer or directly onto the table.

Why do people dip their fingers in the wine?

Sometimes, you may observe people dipping their pinkies into the wine and brushing their wine-stained fingers against their eyebrows (to express their appreciation of the mitzvah) or even shoving them into their pockets (expressing their wish for a successful week). Others may pick up the extinguished candle and give it a sniff (expressing their wish for improved memory for Torah study). These are among the interesting customs that have arisen around this ceremony—and there are many more. If you wonder about something you see, just ask.

Does Shabbat end before Havdalah?

Even though night has fallen on Saturday night, Shabbat does not leave us until we usher it out through havdalah. Thus, if you need to drive, light the fire, or do any other act forbidden on Shabbat, once Shabbat has ended, make sure to say a mini-havdalah: Baruch hamavdil bein kodesh lechol, “Blessed is He who separates between holy and profane.” You can then go about your business.

Is there food?

Havdalah is often followed by a meal known as melaveh malkah, “escorting the queen.” Enjoyed in candlelight, the meal itself is often on the lighter side, and often dairy. It may come along with storytelling and Hebrew melodies. Other than that, it’s pretty much freestyle, so just go with the flow.

Holding the ceremonial cup of wine for Kiddush or Havdalah.
Holding the ceremonial cup of wine for Kiddush or Havdalah.

Are there useful links for more info?

Learn when Shabbat ends in any location and at any time of the year

Lots of useful information about havdalah

Questions and answers about this ceremony

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.