Separating The Holy And The Profane

What is Havdalah and is it really necessary?

We have talked about Shabbat, and its holiest place in our weeks. But why is it only one day? Why does God give us just sunset to sunset to experience this, rather than encouraging us to go through our whole week in this place of spiritual wholeness? One could argue that this “one-off” chance a week is a way to truly elevate this opportunity. Ok, fine, I can (somewhat) get on board with that, but that doesn’t really answer my question as to why.

There is an order to a Shabbat service. The order may vary depending on which branch of Judaism you identify with, which synagogue you go to, or even how you choose to usher in Shabbat on your own. We light candles, bless wine, usher in the Shabbat bride through the Lecha Dodi, engage in silent prayer through the Amidah, sing Adon Olam, and head on home for some kind of meal that is sure to make all the time you spent praying standing up worth it (not like its not worth it on its own, but humor me for a minute). And as beautiful and fulfilling this experience may be, and as much as we may be surrounded by people while we engage in this holiest of rituals, I have to admit that, for me, there is a feeling of loneliness that comes with it. I may be praying in a room full of people, but it can still feel like I’m praying alone.

Enter Havdalah. For those of you may not know what Havdalah is, it means “separation”. It marks the end of Shabbat; the separation of the holy from the prophane (full disclosure: I really dislike describing the rest of the week with that word, but we will use it for argument sake). Havdalah is split into two parts: an initial longer prayer, and the prayers over the three ritual elements: the wine, the aromatic herbs, and the multi-wick candle (more on that later). We end this by singing Eliyahu Hanavi and wish each other a Shavua Tov, or good week. Now, if you have ever been a part of a Youth Group, or have spent time with Jewish educators, you will also think of Havdalah as that moment where you get to hug in a circle and sing to the tunes of
Debbie Friedman (a new favorite after growing up with a completely different melody!). Havdalah has a few specific parts to it. We begin by thanking God for protecting us, the God of Yaakov (not Abraham, by the way, and that’s a whole rabbit hole that we don’t have time for today), and then we enter into the three blessing. We bless the wine, just as how we started Shabbat by reciting kiddush. We then move to the blessing of the aromatic spices, which are meant to be passed down the circle for everyone in the room, and as you take a good whiff of them, your soul is to be invigorated by the powerful (and delicious if you ask me) smell. And then comes the multi-wick candle I told you about; one interpretation says that we use multiple wicks because we are thanking God for the multiple illuminations of fire, as the prayer is said in plural: “Baruch atah, Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha'olam, boray me'oray ha'aysh. Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the fire's lights.. And then comes the big finale! Baruch atah, Adonai, Elohaynu melech ha'olam, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol bayn or lechoshech bayn Yisrael la'amim bayn yom hashevi'i leshayshet yemay hama'aseh. Baruch atah, Adonai, hamavdil bayn kodesh lechol. Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who separates between the holy and the profane; between the light and dark; between Israel and the other nations; between the seventh day and the six days of the week. Blessed are You, God, who separates between the holy and the profane.” We get to use all five senses: taste (wine), smell (aromatic herbs), touch (as we pass down the cup for everyone to hold), hearing (listening to the blessings), and sight (staring at the fire). We get to engage all of our senses and get this once a week opportunity to really immerse ourselves in the moment. We take our candle and dip it in our wine cup. We then sing the Eliyahu, hope the Messiah will come, and there you have it! Shavua Tov, everyone!

Whenever I know I’ll have a chance to spend Havdalah with a group of people, I feel my soul filling up with joy as the moment draws near. However, I am aware of how ironic this sounds. Am I really that excited to get to that point in Shabbat where we are to leave that holy space behind us, and go back to the hustle of the work week? Doesn’t resting sound much more exciting than going back to running kids back and forth from school and activities, working, cooking, etc.? We even say it in the prayer, bayn or lechoshech, between the light (of Shabbat) and the darkness (of the week), how is it humanly possible to be overcome by such level of emotion once we enter Havdalah, when the final product is nothing more than back to the grind in our good ol’ mundane lives?. After a lot (and honestly, a LOT of thinking) it dawned on me. That “profane” life that we talk about, that space that is “no longer holy”, is nothing less than an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, with our space, with our soul. We have just finished spending a solid twenty-four or so hours doing some serious soul work, now we get a whole week to put it to good use!

The idea to write about Havdalah came from (shocker!) a conversation with my mom earlier this week. She was gearing up for a reunion with high school friends and offered to run a Havdalah service. I had mentioned to her that Havdalah is my favorite ritual, but when she asked me why, it took a while to figure out a way to put it into words. After all, while I do feel connected to my Judaism, my actual practice is very limited, so trying to verbalize why I love Havdalah so much creates a complicated train of thought. It took writing all of this, plus more conversations with my mom, to finally figure out the answer. All throughout our lives, we meet people, places, that change our lives. We learn new life-changing lessons, cry over heartbreaks, rejoice in celebrations of life and learning. These fleeting moments are just that, fleeting, and that’s the most beautiful part of it. We are taught in Judaism to honor our past, and let it shape our future, no matter how far ago that past took place. We get a chance to experience these enriching opportunities and learn from others, only to go back to our regular lives with a new perspective, a new lesson. We don’t leave these lessons or experiences behind; we carry them with us. How many of us have met people that have made a mark in our lives, and get to spend time with them later in life, now grown and renewed, and get to create brand new memories, even when we have been with the same people before?

Next time you get to Havdalah, I encourage you to embrace that moment of “separation”, for you have now been given the chance to apply all that spiritual work and the lessons you have gained from Shabbat, and make your week a little more special, let your soul grow a little more each week, even if your week feels like one repetitive loop of responsibilities. Create your own holy space outside Shabbat. Spend a little extra time with loved ones, call a friend (even if you talk to them every day), spend some alone time and decompress; whatever it is that you need, don’t let your soul forget all that work that you just did. And remember that your “Havdalah” isn’t a permanent ending, but really, it’s just a pause and a chance to practice what you just learned.


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