Some weeks ago I wrote about the Jewish Sabbath being a “palace in time,” a 25-hour period when we have the opportunity to cease doing and instead devote ourselves simply to being: with loved ones, in prayer and/or worship. contemplating, resting. Judaism’s rituals for welcoming the Sabbath have their counterpart in Havdallah at its end. The Havdallah ritual takes but a few minutes, yet it is rich in spirtual meaning and physical experience, calling all five senses into play.
Havdallah means separation and the ceremony marks our leavetaking of Shabbat and entering the new week. As Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles, so too does Havdallah. Havdallah candles must have at least two wicks, reminding us of the duality of our lives—material and spirtual. Once the Havdallah candle is lit a blessing is recited over wine reminding us, as on Shabbat, of life’s joys and sweetness. Next is the blessing over spices (often cloves) one last sensation of Shabbat’s sweetness before we move into the new week. As the blessing is recited over the flame of the Havdallah candle, it is tradition to hold one’s hands toward the flame. I was taught this links an action to the blessing. Recently I came upon a beautiful interpretation from Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston, Rhode Island.
“The reflected light off of the fingernails has further symbolism. According to the Zohar*, when God created the first human beings, they were clothed in bodies of pure light. The soul of the human being [shone] visibly within this translucent body. It was only after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam and Eve were given material bodies made of flesh. However, as a reminder of our original form, God allowed us to retain a single vestige of those original bodies. Our translucent fingernails are a reminder that, in our origin, we are beings of light. As Shabbat departs, we gaze at the light of the candle reflected in our fingernails to remember this truth about ourselves.” Isn’t that lovely!
At the end of the ceremony, the candle is extinguished in a few drops of wine. The hiss of sound as fire meets wine is becomes an indelible signal of letting go of Shabbat and moving into the physical world once again.
* The Zohar is the foundational book of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.