The Havdalah Ceremony in Judaism

Saying "Farewell" to Shabbat and "Hello" to a New Week

Havdalah
Getty Images

You might have heard of the ritual that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week called havdalah.  There is a process, history and reason for havdalah, all of which are important to understanding its significance in Judaism.  

Meaning of Havdalah

Havdalah (הבדלה) translates from Hebrew as "separation" or "distinction." Havdalah is a ceremony involving wine, light and spices used to mark the end of Shabbat or a Yom Tov (holiday) and the rest of the week.

Although the Sabbath ends at the appearance of three stars, there generally are set calendars and times for havdalah. 

The Origins of Havdalah

The generally accepted belief derives from Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides) that havdalah comes from the commandment to "Remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy" (Exodus 20:7, Hilchot Shabbat 29:1). This would mean that havdalah is a command direct from the Torah (d'oratai). However, others, including Tosofot, have disagreed, saying that havdalah is a rabbinic decree (d'rabbanan).

In the Gemara (Brachot 33a), the rabbis institute the recitation of havdalah prayer during the evening service on Saturday at the end of the Sabbath. Later, as Jews became more affluent, the rabbis instituted that havdalah be recited over a cup of wine. As Jewish status, influence, and affluence in various communities in the world fluctuated, the rabbis wavered on havdalah being recited during the services or after services with wine.

Eventually, the rabbis made a permanent command that havdalah should be recited during the prayer service but that it must be made over a cup of wine (Shulchan Aruch Harav 294:2). 

How To Observe the Ritual

The rabbis have taught that Jews are given an extra soul on Shabbat and havdalah is the time when that extra soul is relinquished.

The havdalah ceremony provides hope that the sweet and holy aspects of Shabbat will stay throughout the week.  

Havdalah following Shabbat comprises a series of blessings over wine or grape juice, spices and a candle with multiple wicks. After Yom Tov, however, the ritual features just a blessing over wine or grape juice, not spices or candles. 

The process for the havdalah ritual:

  • Light the havdalah candle 
  • Recite the first paragraph and the blessing over wine or grape juice ( p'ri hagafen)
  • Pass the cup to your other hand and recite the blessing over the spices (b'samim)
  • Smell the spices; in many families, the spices are passed around for each person to smell
  • Return the cup to the original hand and recite the blessing over candle (ha'esh)
  • Fold your fingers toward you and toward the light
  • Recite the final paragraph
  • Drink most of the wine and then extinguish the havdalah candle in the remaining portion of the wine

After havdalah many also will sing Eliyahu Ha'Navi. You can find all of the blessings for havdalah online

The Wine

Although wine or grape juice are preferred, if there is no wine or grape juice available, an individual can use what is called the chamar ha'medina, meaning a recognized national beverage, preferably alcoholic like beer (Shulchan Aruch 296:2), although tea, juice and other beverages are permitted.

These drinks typically have the shehakol blessing rather than the blessing for the wine.

Many will fill the cup so that the wine spills over as a good omen for a week of success and luck, taken from "my cup overfloweth."

The Spices

For this aspect of havdalah, a mixture of spices like cloves and cinnamon are used. The spices are thought to calm the soul as it prepares for the coming week of work and toil and the loss of the Sabbath. 

Some use their etrog from Sukkot for use as spices throughout the year. This is done by placing cloves in the etrog, which prompts it to dry out. Some even create a "havdalah hedgehog."

The Candle

The havdalah candle must have multiple wicks — or more than one candle's wick joined together —because the blessing itself is in the plural. The candle, or fire, represents the first work of the new week.

 

Extra Laws and Practices

From sunset Saturday until after havdalah, one shouldn't eat or drink, although water is permitted. If an individual forgot to make havdalah on Saturday night, he or she has until Tuesday afternoon to do so. However, if an individual is making havdalah on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, the spices and candle should be omitted from the blessings. 

If an individual cannot obtain spices or a flame, he or she should recite havdalah over wine (or another beverage) without the blessings over the missing items. 

A minimum of 1.6 ounces should be consumed from the havdalah cup. 

There are two forms of havdalah, one Ashkenazic and one Sephardic. The former takes its introductory verses from Isaiah, Psalms, and the Book of Esther, while the latter comprises verses describing God providing success and light. The basic blessings for the rest of havdalah over the wine, spices, and light are the same across the board, although Reconstructionist Judaism omits a portion of the concluding prayers based on Leviticus 20:26 that says "between Israel and the nations." This portion includes a variety of separation phrases relating to the separation of the Sabbath from the rest of the week, and the Reconstructionist movement rejects the idea of chosenness from the Bible.