The Havdalah (lit. "separation") ceremony is recited at the conclusion of the Sabbath and festivals to mark the distinction between the departing sacred day and the ordinary weekday that is beginning. One of the most ancient blessings, it is preceded by a number of scriptural verses and three blesssings — over wine, spices, and light — all comprising the Havdalah ceremony.

The flame lit during the Havdalah ceremony represents, and thereby commemorates, the first fire, said to have been created by Adam with divine assistance on the night following the Sabbath of Creation.

We had been taught that R. Yose said: It had been God's intention to create fire on the eve of the Sabbath, but it was not created until Sabbath's outgoing. At the Sabbath's outgoing, the Holy One gave Adam the kind of knowledge like the knowledge above, so that Adam fetched two stones and rubbed one against the other. From between them fire came forth, and over it Adam uttered the blessing "Blessed by Thou' who created diverse lights of fire."[1]

The understanding that man's creative abilities are ultimately rooted in God and His wisdom is commemorated with a blessing. As Adam recites this blessing at the conclusion of the Sabbath, it is included as part of the Havdalah ceremony. At the same time, because it is also the first thing the individual produces by his own efforts after resting throughout the Sabbath, it also exemplifies creative human activity.

Writes Josef Stern: "Among the many accounts and myths found throughout ancient literature in which the creation of fire is used to exemplify human creativity, the talmudic version of Adam's act aided by God and commemorated with a blessing[2] is unique, especially (as the late Saul Lierberman observed) in contrast to the Prometheus myth, in which man steals the original fire from Zeus and is punished for his act. For in making a blessing over the flame he brings into being, the individual acknowledges that the product of his own apparently free, creative action is ultimate due to God."[3]

The first-century school of Shammai determined that the formula recited over the light should be, "Who created the light of the fire." The school of Hillel, however, maintained that since there are many colors of fire, it was necessary to say, "Who created the lights of fire" in the plural[4] and the halakhah was established accordingly.

According to the halakha (religious law), birkhot ha-nehenin ("blessings for things enjoyed")[5] cannot be recited unless there is actual benefit from the object blessed; the light over which the blessing is made must serve some other immediate and practical purpose. Hence the individuals participating in the havdalah ceremony and reciting the blessing over the flames, turn the palm of their hands, using the light to observe their fingernails and to distinguish light from shadow.

[1] BT Pes. 54a; Bereishit Rabbah 11 [back]
[2] BT Berakhot 8:6 [back]
[3] Josef Stern, "Gesture and Symbol" in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, ed. Arthur a. Cohen and Paul Mendes Flohr, Copyright © 1987 by Charles Scribner's Sons. [back]
[4] Berakhot 52a [back]
[5] Birkhot ha-nehenin are those blessings recited over things providing pleasure such as food and drink; also included in this category are benedictions recited over enjoying the aroma of fragrant flowers or spices. [back]

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