The Hebrew word ‘Havdalah’ means ‘separation’ and is used to describe the brief ceremony held shortly after Shabbat ends to formally mark the end of Shabbat and the return to weekday activities and routines. Making Havdalah is considered another way of honouring the Shabbat – tradition says that we should regard Shabbat as an honoured guest in our homes, and so we honour Shabbat by formally farewelling it with the Havdalah ceremony.
Havdalah is performed in the synagogue as part of the Ma’ariv (evening) service on Saturday evening. Importantly, it is also performed at home for the benefit of those who did not see it in synagogue – thus the father in a family typically performs Havdalah upon his return home from synagogue on Saturday evening. This then allows his family to resume weekday activities.
Does this mean that those not in synagogue when Shabbat ends must wait until the father of the household returns home and performs havdalah before they are allowed to do tasks not allowed on the Shabbat? Not necessarily. The simple solution is for a person to say ‘Baruch Hu hamavdil bein kodesh l’khol’ (‘Blessed is He Who distinguishes between holy and profane’) at the time Shabbat ends, and this then ‘tides them over’ and allows them to perform weekday tasks (such as turning lights on or off, using phones, turning on washing machines, or even fetching the supplies needed to make Havdalah) until the proper Havdalah ceremony is performed.
The Havdalah ceremony has two main parts:
- The recitation of some introductory Bible verses
- The recitation of four blessings
After this, it is customary to sing songs such as Eliyahu haNavi (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and ‘Shavua Tov’ (‘A good week’ – wishing everyone a good week).
The following four blessings are said as part of the Havdalah ceremony:
- The blessing over wine
- The blessing over spices
- The blessing over fire
- The Havdalah blessing – thanking G-d for distinguishing between holy and profane.
The blessing over spices stems from a midrash (homiletic tale) saying that we are each given an additional soul on Shabbat – but that soul leaves at the end of Shabbat (this might be interpreted as the extra air of spirituality that prevails on Shabbat). To help ‘revive’ us due to the departure of the additional soul, we smell spices which delight and refresh the remaining soul.
The blessing over fire relates to a different midrash, this one dealing with the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge on the Friday afternoon, but the punishment of their being banished from the Garden was not implemented until Saturday evening after Shabbat had finished. The midrash tells us that after Shabbat, but before they were expelled, G-d Himself taught Adam and Eve how to make fire – an essential skill they would need to survive once banished and having to fend for themselves outside the Garden. The blessing over fire said during Havdalah reminds us of this kindness shown to us by G-d at that time and that He cares for us even when punishing us.
Havdalah is also performed at the end of Biblically-commanded holidays such as Pesach (Passover) or Yom Kippur. However, which of the four blessing is said may vary if it is not a Saturday night.
Judaism 101: Havdalah Home Ritual
Aish: Havdalah How-To
Chabad: What is Havdalah?
‘What is Havdalah and Why is it Important?’
‘Havdallah – the End of Shabbat’ (includes explanation of how to make Havdalah)