On Friday night, either at synagogue or around the family table, we light two candles to welcome the day of rest and renewal. As we kindle the lights of Shabbat we invite the light of creation to enter our spirits and, after our hectic work or school week, we allow the Shabbbat lights to “nudgie” us toward a well-deserved breath of peace.
With light we inaugurate Shabbat and with light we conclude it. That’s what Havdalah is all about. It is beautiful ceremony that allows us to say “Shalom” to Shabbat and prepare ourselves for the week ahead.
The origin of the Havdalah ceremony has been attributed to the men of the Great Assembly in the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and for the last 1500 years we Jews have honored Shabbat, not only by saying hello, but also by taking time to say good-bye. Havdalah comes from the Hebrew word, “l’havdil” which means “to separate.” And that’s just what Havdalah does. It is a time divider, creating an important division between the serenity of Shabbat and what has become the workaholism of our busy weekdays.
Here at the Kobernick House, a senior independent living campus where I live and work as the resident rabbi, we have begun a weekly celebration of Havdalah. Thanks to local Sunday school students whose creative hands crafted individual spice boxes for our residents, each one of us can interact with the Havdalah symbols and give personal meaning to our ancient traditions.
We gather around the card table in the center of our Activity Room and begin by making the familiar kiddush blessing. Then each of us takes in hand an individual spice box and, giving it a shake, we take a deep sniff of the fragrant spices inside. We make the blessings to remind us that these beautiful mixed scents symbolize the calming of our souls that are saddened at the departure of that “extra soul” that comes to us during Shabbat. We celebrate our Shabbat soul as we share special Shabbat memories.
“My grandchildren came for dinner!” says Freda.
“I had my 105th birthday party,” says a beaming Philip.
“I heard from my best friends from grade school,” says Dorit.
The spices literally unlock our memories as their mingled fragrance fills the room.
As the candle glows, our residents follow many different traditions while they enjoy the Havdalah flame. Some of us hold our fingers near the flame so that we can see the light reflected on our fingernails. Why? Some say this reflection reminds us of the work our hands will do in the coming week. The reflection asks us to conduct our daily lives with the love and peace that Shabbat has given us. Then, holding the candle high, we lean it into the kiddush cup and extinguish the flame in the wine. The light makes its way to the wine, as we make the “zzz-ing” sound in unison. The wine douses the flame and Shabbat has ended.
As an Italian Jew, I’ve added a piece from my own heritage to the familiar Havdalah ceremony. After we extinguish the flame, it is an Italian Jewish tradition to pass the kiddush cup to each person, allowing each one to dip a “pinky” finger into the wine. Then we place two drops of wine, one drop each on the cheek of the person next to us. It’s the Italian way of embracing the sweetness of Shabbat for one last moment.
We sing Eliahu HaNavi, as we share our hope for the messiah to come speedily and in our time. Then our seniors, who range in age from their seventies to our oldest, Fay at 107, join hands and sway back and forth. “dancing” to our “sitting Hora,” as we sing Shavuah Tov (A Good Week) together.
Wine and spices, light and song. Each combines to signify our hope for a week filled with sweetness, brightness and joy.