Have you ever wondered why people dip their fingers into the leftover Havdalah wine? This custom, rich in meaning and tradition, follows the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat.

First, the Havdalah candle is extinguished by dipping it in the wine that has spilled into the cup's saucer. This act demonstrates that the candle was lit for the sole purpose of performing the Havdalah ceremony.

Then, many people dip their fingers into the wine in which the candle was extinguished, and then gently rub it above their eyelids.1 Some also apply it to their foreheads2 and/or pockets.

The roots of this custom (or variations of it) can be traced back to the Midrash of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer3 and is mentioned by Rabbi Natronai Gaon4 and Rabbi Amram Gaon in the 9th-century Gaonic period.5

Interestingly, these earlier sources describe the custom a bit differently than it’s practiced today. After drinking the wine of Havdalalah, people would mix some water with the leftover wine, drink a bit of it, and then dip their hands into the leftover wine-water mixture and rub it over the eyelids. To the best of my knowledge, very few people still do it this way. Instead, they follow the waterless procedure outlined above, which is codified in the Code of Jewish Law.6

Why Do We Do This?

As recorded in the great works throughout the generations,7 this custom demonstrates how precious mitzvahs are to us. Why the eyes? It seems that in Talmudic times, this was a way to demonstrate how dear something is to you. This is reflected in the adage, “Who can give us some of the dust of (the great sages), and I will place it on our eyes.”8

Another reason for this custom is, that, as stated in the Talmud,9 the “leftovers” of a mitzvah have the power to keep away evil.10 This is thus a propitious start to the new week, which we hope will be filled with only goodness.

Additionally, it is said (and the Rebbe actually quoted this) that putting the leftover wine of Havdalah on the eyelids can benefit one’s eyesight.11

While dipping the fingers into the wine (which some do three times12) some have the custom of reciting the verse “The commandment of the L-rd is clear, enlightening the eyes.”13

As mentioned, some also slip their wine-dabbed fingers into their pockets as a segulah (a practice for spiritual or material benefit) for riches and livelihood.14

Related Customs

Looking at the Wine: Before drinking the wine, some look at their forehead in the reflection of the wine as another way to ward off negative spiritual forces.15

Sniffing the Havdalah Candle: Some have the custom to smell the extinguished Havdalah candle. This is another way to demonstrate the preciousness of the mitzvah and also a segulah to ward off negative spiritual forces throughout the week.16