Rabbinic literature associates the flame lit during the havdalah ceremony with the first fire, said to have been created by Adam with divine assistance on the night following the Sabbath of Creation. At the same time, because it is also the first thing the individual produces by his own efforts after resting on the Sabbath, it also exemplifies human creativity activity. Here, moreover, these two symbolic relations interact with each other and the halakhah (religious law), engendering still more symbolism.

Detail from Sefer Haminhagim, Amsterdam 1707
View entire woodcut illustration

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 [1] is unique. It is, as the late Talmudic scholar Saul Lieberman 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, Adam [and the individual re-enacting this action in the havdalah ceremony] acknowledges that the product of his own apparently free, creative action is ultimately due to God.

Once this blessing has been introduced, it brings in its train additional halakhically motivated gestures. Because such a blessing of enjoyment cannot be recited unless there is actual benefit from the object blessed, the light over which the blessing is made must serve some immediate good. Hence, the practitioner folds the palm of one hand, turns its back to the light, and opens it gain, using the light to distinguish the tissue of the nail from the flesh and light from shadow.

Although this last gesture is possibly the most unusual in the ritual, it is, ironically, the only that is primarily practical — though it, too, comes to symbolize the distinction between the sacred and the profane, illustrating how symbolic meanings tend to be read into gestures in context, even where the gestures would never have had these meanings in themselves.

[1] BT Berakhot 5

Josef Stern is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Committee on Jewish Studies, and CollegeHe received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at Columbia University, and for three years also pursued non-degree studies in Talmud, medieval rabbinics, and Jewish thought in Israel.

His current research is principally in contemporary philosophy of language and medieval philosophy, especially the philosophy of Moses Maimonides, although his broader interests and the courses he teaches include various topics in epistemology and metaphysics, Islamic and Latin medieval philosophy, philosophy of religion, logic, and philosophy of art.

HAVDALAH Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend