The word havdalah, distinction or separation, is a rabbinical term for the benedictions and prayers by means of which a division is made between times of varying degrees of holiness for (such as between Sabbath and work-day, festival and work-day, or Sabbath and festival). Rabbinical law required a formal distinction between holy and profane times, a ritual division that would allow for the resumption of ordinary work after a holy day. We learn in the Babylonian Talmud that "the men of the Great Synagogue instituted blessings and prayers, sanctifications and Havdalot for Israel" for this purpose. [1]

At the core of the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath are four blessings; the first three involve rituals of wine, spices, and flame, each appealing to a different sense: taste, smell, and sight. These ancient practices predate the schools of Hillel and Shammai, who already debated the exact order of their use. [2]

  • Blessing recited over wine ("Creator of the fruit of the vine"), marking the distinction between holy and profane with wine much as we marked it when the day began (in Kiddush). [more]
  • Blessing recited over spices ("Creator of various spices"); various explanations have been offered; [more]
  • Blessing recited over lights ("Creator of the lights of flame") indicating that work is now permitted and thus stressing the departure of the Sabbath [more]

    "Birchot Havdalah" from The World of Your Dreams: Blessings as sung in contemporary melody by Debby Friedman *

A fourth and final blessing focuses on a number of distinctions, e.g. "between the Sabbath and the other days of the week." Known from early times in various versions, these versions differed primarily in the number of distinctions they contained. In the Talmud it is laid down that "He who would recite but few distinctions, must recite not less than three, but he who would proliferate must not recite more than seven." R. Judah ha-Nasi, however, recited only one, the distinction "between the holy and the profane." [3] Poetic versions containing seven distinctions have been preserved in the Genizah fragments.

The order of the Havdalah blessing that came to be accepted is noted by the mnemonic word y-b-n-h, formed from the initial letters of wine, spices, light, separation (yod for yayin, bet for besamim, nun for ner, heh for havdalah.)

During medieval times, Ashkenazi communities added a number of verses which gave expression to the concept of redemption and deliverance; these served as "a good omen," a gesture of appeal for God's help in facing the uncertainties and struggles of the coming week. [4]

Behold the God who gives me deliverance!
I am confident, unafraid;
For Yah the Lord is my strength and might,
And He has been my deliverance.
Joyfully shall you draw water
From the fountains of deliverance. [5]
Deliverance is the Lord's; Your blessing be upon Your people! [6]
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our haven. [7] So may it be for us!
The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor. [8]
I raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord. [9]

It became customary to sing hymns at the at the close of the Havdalah ceremony. Of these, several contain references to the prophet Elijah, who according to one tradition, Elijah will make his appearance at the conclusion of Shabbat to announce the coming of the Messiah.


[1] BT Berakhot
[2] Ber. 8:5
[3] BT Pes. 103b
[4] Tur, OH 296:1

[5] Isaiah 12:2?3
[6] Psalms 3:9
[7] Ps. 46:12
[8] Esther 8:16)
[9] Ps. 116:13
* "Birchot Havdalah" from The World of Your Dreams; music by Debbie Friedman
© 1976 Deborah Lynn Friedman (ASCAP); published by Sounds Write Productions, Inc. (ASCAP)

HAVDALAH Table of Contents



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