I’m a havdalah neophyte. Until well into my 30s, I had no clue what havdalah was. Judaism, unbeknownst to me, had an ancient ritual to mark Sabbath’s end.
Why write about this ancient ritual now? For the first time on Saturday night, I experienced the beauty and simplicity of havdalah in my own home. It was not planned. We had our temple’s cantor, her husband, and 4-year-old over for dinner, and the idea slipped out of my mouth as the sky began to darken.
My husband hunted for the ritual necessities, and I dug out my guitar for the cantor. We had a havdalah candle, which my husband brought into the marriage from his many years as a member of a Boston-area chavurah. Until I looked it up for this blog post, I had no idea what made a candle particular to havdalah. It must have at least two wicks out of deference to the candle blessing that refers to the “lights of the fire,” according to Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant and Howard Cooper. We had a kiddush cup from our wedding. We lacked a spice box, but improvised. We poured cinnamon into a ceramic potpourri container adorned with the painting of a rabbit. This was havdalah on the fly.
My 2-year-old sat on the couch by me and our friends’ daughter, and the cantor began playing the guitar. My husband Pavlik lit the Havdalah candle, and we sang the first prayer over the cup of wine. This prayer I knew, but I stumbled over the words of the rest of the havdalah blessings. I mostly just sang the “lai lais” with my toddler Simon. Pavlik, the cantor, and her husband curled up their fingers and looked at their fingernails after the candle was lit. I had no idea what they were doing. Each of us sniffed the “spice box,” a ritual I have always enjoyed but also have never understood. The ceremony ended when my husband dunked the burning candle wicks into the cup of wine. By design, havdalah is short. We, though, kept singing for a while afterward, retaining the warmth that filled our living room during havdalah.
I wanted us to do havdalah despite my ignorance of the practice. Experiencing havdalah this past weekend reminded me how much I have yet to learn about my faith.
Some of the lessons I learned last weekend:
- Jews look for the reflection and shadow of the candle lights to experience the last remnant of Sabbath lights. The action of scrutinizing the light on our hands is in a sense work, a reminder that our time of rest is over.
- Smelling the spices, according to the Diamant/Cooper book, “symbolizes both the sweetness of paradise and also the wish for a sweet week to come.”
- The service is so short that it is a wonderful, special ritual to do with young children. Our 2-year-old was mesmerized by the glowing candle and the music – and wanted to sniff the spices several times.
- The prayers are in something called a bencher, a booklet of prayers said after meals. And my husband has several benchers in his study.
- Even if you do not know the Havdalah prayers, you can participate. Just sing the “lais.”
- Havdalah is something I hope to experience time and time again so the words of the prayers fall as naturally off my tongue as the prayers of Shabbat do.