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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Thoughts on Havdalah

A commenter named Asher asked me to post about the meaning behind "havdalah" the ceremony performed at the end of the Sabbath.

In a nutshell "Havdalah" means a "separation." This ceremony creates a separation between Shabbos which is holy and the rest of the week which is not.

There are many good websites that explain the meaning behind this practice.
There is even a little slide show in flash showing how it's done with about all the information you'll ever need on the subject.

Here are a few items of interest (at least for me) that you won't see on the websites:

1) Segulos

Segulos are funny customs that Jewish people have developed over time which they hope will bring them a specific kind of good fortune. My husband, who is not the least bit superstitious or wasteful generally, insists on overfilling the cup of wine (or which ever beverage we happen to be using) so that some spills out on to the table. I think this is supposed to bring us great wealth (so far it's not working.) I've also seen people take some of the wine and apply a bit, with their fingertips, to their pockets and the sides of their heads. This I am told is promote wealth (the pockets) and brainpower (the head.) I believe this custom was started by drycleaners although I am not sure.
Another segulah I have heard of is having a single woman hold the candle at the height she would like her husband to be. I've always thought that was ridiculous and when it was my turn to hold the candle held it right at table level. My husband is 6' - so there you go.

I don't know why havalah has generated so many segulos or what their origins are but it's interesting to see what people will try.

2) How do you use the light?

Part of the Havdalah ceremony involves lighting a multi-wicked candle and looking at your hands in the light after making a blessing over it. We do this to make use of the light so that our blessing is not purposeless.
My mother in law likes to shake her hands all around in front of the candle- I have no idea where that came from...
When I was in 4th grade my Hebrew teacher went on maternity leave - leaving the class in the care of "Mr. Hajbi" a yeminite man none of us had ever met before. He told us that when we look at our hands during havdalah we should look at our nails and remember that before the fall of man Adam and Chava (adam and eve) were covered entirely in a protective fingernail like coating to keep them safe from harm, but when they sinned this was taken from them...
I've never hear that particular tale before or since.
He also spend a lot of time telling us about gigulim and basically scaring the crap out of us- oh and about Unkelus and how important he was (but I digress.)

3) The best besamim ever

Another part of the ceremony involves the smelling of fragrant spices. I really enjoy a good scent so I make my own besamim out of crushed dried haddass leaves, cloves, and other spices. I think it's the best besamim ever.
My sister-in-law prefers to take the cinnamon out of my spice cabinet and smell that instead which I find rather insulting.

OK Asher, I hope that answered your questions about havdalah or at least gave you something to think about.



At 12:00 PM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I've heard the fingernail thing before. It was a different version, though. The story i learned was that the 'skin garments' God gave Adam and Hhava after they got kicked out of the Garden was a full-body covering of fingernail material, and that showing ourselves the fire on our fingernails is supposed to remind us of God teaching Adam and Hhava how to make fire now that they were stuck in the 'real world' and had to work hard to survive.

I like choosing random spices, so that i'll have a paprika week, or a curry week, or even an italian seasoning week... ;-)

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

People smell the havdalah candle after it's extinguished. Why? Beats me....but I've been doing it for years. I picked this up from one of my friends' fathers. He said it a segulah for courage. Can't hurt?

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

Also, as a goof, after the requisite ritual waving and reflecting for meorei ha'aish I wave my fingers, palms down, in front of the candle like I'm placing a voodoo curse on it and say, "Whoo-ooo-ooo."

Now my kids do this and I'm convinced that in 50 years it will be someone's minhag.

At 1:07 PM, Blogger chuck said...

ah.. minhag discussions are my domain
you forgot the looking at the reflection of the havdalah candle in the wine, while making the final b'racha, which of course lets one see the future, if you're worthy of it!!
(i can see everyone sneeking a peek this week..HA)
sniffing the burnt out havdalah candle is said to improve ones memory

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

The Gemoro (in Berokhôs, I think) says that the "Bôrê Me'ôrê Ho'êsh" is connected to the fire that Odom Horishôn lit on the first Môtzo'ê Shnabbos of the world. So there is a connection between Avdalto* and Creation.

(All the "cool" people call it Avdalto, not Havdolo.)

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

...the fire that Odom Horishôn lit..

Sorry, I meant "Ozom Horishôn"

At 1:47 PM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Shifra - you forgot the post-havdala songs. Don't you all sing Eliyahu HaNavi (and others) as part of the post Havdala ending?

(Thats usually when the phone starts to ring for hitchiker rides the following morning)

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Holy Hyrax said...

I'm the guy that when I DO havdalah, I never overflow the cup, I never put my finger nails to the light and often give a weird look to those that stick their fingers in the wine and then place it in their pockets, behind their necks on their wrists and sometimes up their nose.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

You are right Jameel - I was going to mention the songs and got distracted thinking about Mr. Hajbi and the story of the man who didn't make brachos and came back to life as a stalk of wheat.

Mar- Ozem ha'rishon? Is that the first instant soup mix ever made?

Chuck- Smelling the candle improves your memory? Clearly it didn't work for the guy who passes the minhag on to Still Wonderin'!

HH- I'm with you. It's a little nutty- still if people want to make wishes it's OK with me- maybe they'll come through from the power of positive thinking!

Steg- thanks for confirming the story- I was begining to think I dreamed it!

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Ozem ha'rishon? Is that the first instant soup mix ever made?

The very first. :-)

Don't you all sing Eliyahu HaNavi (and others) as part of the post Havdala ending?

When I was a kid, we used to sing the refrains of "Eliyyahu Hannavi", "Hammavdil", and perhaps some other songs. I have seen these practice elsewhere, as well. I don't know anyone who sings the whole songs.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

When I was in HS we sang all of Hamavdil every week.
I had my husband sing it with me when we first got married but somehow it didn't stick.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger Zev Steinhardt said...

I know a woman who takes the grape juice/wine from havdallah and applies it to her teeth. She says she's never had a cavity...

(Not that I'm saying that her oral health is a result of what she does by havdallah...)

At 6:32 PM, Blogger BrooklynWolf said...

Sometimes with my kids, it seems like looking at your fingernails is a segulah for having your parents tell you that your fingers are too close to the fire... :)

The Wolf

At 1:24 AM, Blogger MC Aryeh said...

I have also heard the Adom and Chava connection with regard to holding our fingernails up to the light - to remind us of the spiritual level we once were on, and will one day retrun to.

Full confession: I am a dip the fingers in the wine person. In addition to pockets, I place drops of wine on my eyelids, behind the ears and on the luz bone, but I am not familiar with placing it on the temples.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Essie said...

I say a tefila 3 times before havdalah (Hebrew version of Gott Fun Avraham) and sing Eliyahu Hanavi after. I also smell the havdalah candle after it is extinguished. Must have learned it somewhere, but not sure where or why.

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

What about the extinguishing the candle in the liquid?

My family never did that, we just blow it out. And when we were little, me and my brother would fight over who got to blow out the candle.

And then we'd say "Gut vokh, gut yaw; good week, good year." And not sing anything.

Oh, and we never used to preempt my father by saying "Layehudim hayeta...". A few years ago, he asked us why we never say that and we said "because you never taught us to!" So now we know that it is our custom to do that, so we do it.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

What about the extinguishing the candle in the liquid?

My father is very opposed to that practice. He says: "Why waste the wine by extinguishing the candle in it? What are you, a ba'al teshuvo or something?"

(I guess it must be a BT practice, then. Or at least my father thinks that.)

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Gut vokh, gut yaw; good week, good year


Isn't it good yea’, not good year? At least, it sounded like good yea’ when you made avdalto for me a few weeks ago.

At 8:28 AM, Blogger asher said...

You've all left out the wierdiest explanations. Everyone knows that you get a seperate neshama (soul) on shabbat (it was shabbos was I was in yeshiva). The soul leaves you at the end of shabbos and it leaves through your fingernails. You actually watching it leave in the light of the havdalah candle. Also since this neshama is leaving you are prone to faint so the spices are designed to revive you.
The havdalah candle has more than one wick,...why? It's supposed to resemble a torch which was lit on each mountaintop to signify the end of shabbos throughout the land of Israel. Of course, all you had to do was see that it was dark out.

It's hard to believe that orthodox jews who do this ceremony 50 times a year should not know what the symbolism is. Apparenly, since this ceremony is done at home all the kids would be asking their parents what it all meant and the parents had to come up with "something".

I got a better one though: why is it improper to ask someone to personally attend the bris of your son?

I await answers.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

Asher: "It's hard to believe that orthodox jews who do this ceremony 50 times a year should not know what the symbolism is."

Why are you having a hard time believing that other people don't know the dubiously accurate explanation you claim is the TRUE symbolism? The symbolism you raise is as accurate or inaccurate as any other mentioned above.

Asher: "I got a better one though: why is it improper to ask someone to personally attend the bris of your son?"

Because if you were directly invited you would have to come. Merely mentioning the bris, as opposed to a direct invite, provides an acceptable loophole to skip the bris.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Well spoken SW.
Oh, I suppose I have to mention that after I read this post to my husband he pulled out the mishnah brurah and showed my the bit about overflowing the cup was taken directly from the Shulchan Orach. I guess that gives it a lot more credibility as a solid custom, but I still think it's silly.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

But is the overflowing wine a fundamental aspect of the ceremony, or listed as a universally practiced custom?

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


The R at the end of year is optional; the R at the end of yo is obligatorily dropped.

At 6:24 PM, Blogger asher said...

Note to still wonderin': I didn't say I had the definitive reasons for all the things in Havdalah. I said this group left out some of the more bizarre explainations. I'm sure we could go on with more.

Secondly, the reason you cannot directly invite anyone to your son's bris is this: Everyone knows that Eliyahu is always at every bris to protect the infant and Eliyahu is never directly invited. How insulting would it be to Eliyahu if you were directly invited and you didn't show.

Theses explanations must have come about when someone innocently asked someone else why it was done and they went to their local rav who had to come up with some reason. Being that it came from the rab people believed it was the real deal.

If you look at the box for the tefillin shell rosh you will notice that it has the letter shin on one side with 3 branches and on the other side with 4 branches (a letter which does not exist in the hebrew language).

Anyone care to venture a reason for this one?

At 6:53 PM, Blogger Y.Y. said...

some of the segulahs you mentioned have sources from prebious rebbes

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Y.Y. said...


At 8:02 PM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

Asher, you just sounded smug in your comment about the lack of knowledge among all the OJs in the comment area. If you weren't then....neeeever miiiind.

The four headed shin represents the shin that we'll have in the world to come; it's a kabbalistic shin. More than that, you got me. Fee free to fill in the blanks.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

Your explanation was intelligent and informative.

Actually, I learned something from your fingernail example, and will keep that vision inside of my head the next time havdalah is done. Feeling protected, especially in these days, is so very important.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Asher, I'm as perplexed as SW- are you sincerely asking questions or are you just being snarky? I'm starting to suspect the latter. Still it's always good to explore our pre-conceived or ill concieved notions we developed as children and see if we find a more educated approach to the things we practice.

Steg- when I was a kid the candle was always extinguished in the wine. If one of us would try to blow it out my father would say "Does this look like a birthday party to you?!"

These days we have a big candle that you really can't dip so my girls take turns (read: fight over) blowing out the candle. It's gotten so bad I write their names on the calendar to keep track!

Y.Y. Which Rebbes are you refering to?

Barb from Ca- welcome to the blog, and thank you!

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


OMG i think we ended up having to write our names on the calender too!!!! :-)

And yes it is a birthday party, it's a birthday party for the new week ;-)

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Shifra said...

I think it's more like a going away party for Shabbos isn't it?

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Still Wonderin' said...

"Y.Y. Which Rebbes are you refering to?"

you know, the prebious ones....hahahaha just being snarky myself yy.

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wine in pockets, eyes, etc. You'll find it black on white (or yellow) in a Shulchan Aruch.

Have you ever heard of women not drinking havdallah wine? Major Sephardic thing.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Y.Y. said...

you can look them all up in sefer
"taameh haminhagim"

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous chuck said...

anon @10:49 yes drinking the havdalah wine is a segulah for growing a bread therefore women don't drink it :)>
yy tamei haminhagim is full of very interesting stuff!!

when i was a kid, we went to this bungalow colony, where the dads rotated the public havdala recital.
a guy saw my dad doing the wine in the pocket thing and after getting the lowdown, he snickered but said he'll try it
3 months later he calls my dad to thank him, saying business is booming!!

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Miriam P said...

Nice explanation, Shifra!

I always thought that putting out the candle in the wine (in the part that spilled, not in the kos) was just a convenient way to do it because we have a minhag NOT to blow out candles, ever. I think it may be one of the minhagim we "borrowed" from Chabad, because that's where else I've seen it. Something to do with neshamos, but I don't remember the details. (We don't do candles on birthday cakes either, but that's because of the avodah zara angle in the origin of the custom.)

and we don't say "Layehudim ..." either, but that's for three reasons: 1. my husband never pauses there, unless we have guests who start to say it, 2. I never took the time to memorize it and never remember to have a bencher in front of me to try to read from in the mostly dark room and 3. we never taught it to our kids.

And he doesn't share the havdalah wine (okay, usually grape juice) mainly for one reason: so he's sure he drank enough to make a bracha achronah.

At 1:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learned that women shouldn't look at their fingernails because it was Chava's fault that Adom and Chava lost their nail covering.

At 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In college, for awhile, a bunch of students sang all of the verses for all of those post-havdalah songs. So I know more than most people, although I've probably forgotten them by now.

My roommate does the grapejuice on eyes and in pockets thing, and I find it bizarre, especially since she doesn't drink from it first (or at all). I always give her the grape juice after I make havdalah, expecting her to take a sip, and she sticks her fingers in instead. Blech!

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous yaakov rudd said...

Concerning not blowing out the candle, I was told shaydim enjoy the sound and come to it. Therefore, we "never" blow out a candle or match. There is a way around it... If you say the word "pelt" and the breath while saying it puts out the flame, the shaydim don't like it and leave you alone.


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