Havdalah: A Structure In Time

Havdalah: A Structure In Time

Even for those raised with the lightest touch of Jewish religious tradition, Shabbat always takes front and center stage. The version for my (very secular) family when I was a kid was lighting shabbos candles and picking out what movie I would watch with my family. But Shabbat is just one side of the coin, with the ritual of Havdalah on the other side. 

Havdalah at the Brandeis-Bardin Intitute in 1970

I think part of why Havdalah is somewhat neglected in more secularized versions of Jewish tradition is because there can be a kind of sad, melancholy tinge to the practice. The word “havdalah” literally means separation, and the ceremony brings us out of the wholeness of Shabbat and into the fractured reality of everyday life. It’s an end and a beginning all at once, poetically mimicking some of the symbols of Friday night while grounding us for the week ahead.

Braided candle. Kiddush cup. Spice box. Havdalah is intended to activate all five senses - feeling the cup, smelling the spices, seeing the flames from the candle, hearing the blessings, tasting the wine. By engaging with the senses, Havdalah brings us away from the cerebral spiritual realm and back into our bodies. Recorded as early as 1300, Jews hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of light through their fingernails, a sort of visualization of a spiritual permeation into the hands we use for labor. 

Havdalah candles in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Switzerland. 

I've written about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath” a bunch. He describes Shabbat as a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” While we strive to embrace these qualities outside of Shabbat, Havdalah is a reminder that perfection is not reasonable when you have to face the challenges of working life. This separation of holy vs. secular seems to be like the perfect encapsulation of the Jewish practice of pushing away from “either/or” and instead towards “both/and.” 

Traditional Havdalah sets, particularly at the end of the 1880s are fascinatingly ornate. The spice box is often visualized as a palace or building, like Heschel’s vision of shabbat as “a palace in time.” I love how Zack Nathanson’s Havdalah sets, while deceptively minimalist, include references to architecture with the inclusion of a platform or staircase. It emphasizes that with tradition we are in fact building something - organizing time into a structure of its own.