When we make the blessing on the havdalah candle during the post-Shabbat havdalah ceremony, there is a custom to gaze at our fingernails in the light of the candle.

Benefitting From the Flame

The basic reason for this custom is that one should should not recite a blessing over the fire unless he is close enough to its light to benefit from it and differentiate between the coins of one country and the coins of another.1 Therefore, people examine their nails in the candlelight, since it takes a similar amount of light to differentiate between the nails and the skin2 (remember, before havdalah one shouldn’t have any coins on him).

Sign of Blessing

As we prepare to embark on the adventures of another week, we gaze at our fingernails, which are a sign of abundant blessing, as they never stop growing.3

In addition to the main reason cited above, there are other reasons as well:

Remnant of Adam and Eve’s Clothing

According to the Midrash, originally Adam and Eve were created with translucent nail-like suits that served as clothing.4

As we explained in Why Do We Make a Blessing on Fire at Havdalah? one of the reasons we make this blessing is that when the sun began to set at the termination of Shabbat, darkness set in for the first time, terrifying Adam, who thought that the darkness would engulf him. G‑d then inspired Adam, who took two stones and struck them against each other, and fire burst forth. At that moment, Adam praised G‑d and said the blessing “Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d . . . who creates the lights of fire.”

When Adam looked at himself in the fire, he saw that his nail-like garment was gone, except for the actual nails.5

Nails of Fire

According to one Midrashic tradition, the fire Adam created actually came out of his fingernails. We therefore gaze at our nails when we make the blessing on the fire.6

Subduing Negative Forces

Some explain that as we enter the mundane week, we must once again combat negativity, strife and challenge. The negative spiritual forces are at times associated with the nails (which is why nail clippings must be disposed of in a special manner, etc.). When we gaze at the fingernails in the light of the havdalah candle, we symbolically “weaken” their energy.7

What to Look at?

In addition to the fingernails, it is also customary to look at the palms, because there is a sign that leads to blessing in the creases on one’s palms.8 Therefore, the custom is to clench the four fingers over the thumb so that the nails and palm can be viewed at once.9

There are many, including Chabad,10 who have the custom to then spread out their four fingers and look at the backs of their hands, gazing at their nails.11

When to Look?

There are different customs as to whether one should gaze at his fingernails before or after the blessing is said.

The debate is dependent upon the reason for the blessing (see Why Do We Make a Blessing on Fire at Havdalah?). If it is primarily a blessing of praise (birkat hashevach) for the natural phenomenon of fire, then the blessing should follow the experience, just like the blessings after lightening and thunder.

If, however, the reason for the blessing is similar to a blessing of benefit (birkat hanehenin) like the blessing over food, then we should first make the blessing and then enjoy the fire.

The more common practice (and the standard Chabad custom) is to gaze at the fingernails only after the blessing of fire is made.12