Havdalah: Celebration of Contrasts| August 24, 2021
As we return to the mundane, Havdalah reminds us to differentiate
When I was a child, immediately after concluding the final brachah, my father would douse the Havdalah candle in a puddle of whiskey. Fueled by the whiskey’s high alcohol content, the fire erupted in an undulating blue flame that circled the whiskey’s perimeter. As the alcohol diminished, the fire’s tempo escalated until, in a flash, it leapt up and faded into oblivion. Now we could usher in the new week.
Even without an elaborate “dancing fire” ritual, Havdalah is an intricate multisensory encounter: We see the fire, smell the besamim, taste the wine, and listen to the brachos. What is the immersive experience of Havdalah all about? Is it simply a “last hurrah” before taking leave of Shabbos?
The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 29:1) explains that just as we’re mekadeish the onset of Shabbos by reciting Kiddush, we sanctify it with Havdalah at its conclusion. Shabbos is a day saturated with kedushah, set apart from the rest of the week. Kiddush and Havdalah are the entry and exit stations to this elevated reality.
The allusion of the Rambam to “kedushah markers” is reminiscent of his comments on the mitzvah of mezuzah. There he explains that we affix a mezuzah to our doorpost to ensure that as we exit our home, we aren’t overtaken by the outside world’s spiritual chaos and come to forget Hashem.
Havdalah is more than just an indicator of the week’s fluctuating spiritual temperature. As its name suggests, Havdalah, rooted in the word l'havdil (to differentiate), is about celebrating contrasts.
Contrasts are an integral part of life. Light and dark. Hot and cold. When we juxtapose contrasting mediums, they inform each other. The bright morning sky appears all the more dramatic when contrasted with the penetrating blackness of night. A skyscraper’s soaring altitude seems even taller when juxtaposed with a three-story home.
The power of contrast is the subject of a gemara in Pesachim (104). The Gemara recounts an alternate version of Havdalah (one we don’t use) that adds three more distinctions: land and sea, upper waters and lower waters, and Yisrael, the Leviim, and the Kohanim.
By enumerating the contrasts we encounter in life, the Gemara is teaching us the spiritual work of Havdalah: reflecting on the contrasts Hashem built into creation.
How is this a spiritual exercise?
Contrasting mediums do more than just inform each other; they’re an agent for appreciation. This truth resonates deeply in the physical world: I appreciate my late-model Jaguar even more when it’s parked alongside a beat-up old Chevy. My updated wardrobe seems ever more fashionable hanging next to last year’s castoffs.
Contrast is also an excellent vehicle for appreciating our spiritual gifts. When we enumerate the differences during Havdalah, we articulate the most stunning contrast in humanity: Klal Yisrael and the nations of the world.
The Avudraham explains that Havdalah is an expression of praise to Hashem for handpicking us from the other nations and bestowing upon us our sacred identity as Jews. Our appreciation for the difference between Klal Yisrael and the non-Jewish world is all about the contrasts.
Hashem, thank You for the contrast between a life of kodesh — the tefillos and Tehillim, the siyumim and brissim, the eternal striving for greatness and the opportunity for teshuvah, the sweetness of connection to You — and the life of chol — Saturdays at the ballpark, New Year’s resolutions about weight and wealth, no moral obligation for change and growth, birth and death devoid of spiritual significance.
Hashem, thank You for the contrast between a life of ohr — our sojourn in this world enlightened by Divine purpose — and a life of choshech, stumbling confused between movements and isms, a meandering ship devoid of a compass.
Hashem, thank You for the contrast between Yom Hashvi’i — a spiritual refueling, zemiros and seudos with family, parshah and Shabbos parties — and a life of sheishes yemei hamaaseh — errands and work, laundry and food prep, homework and house cleaning.
Havdalah identifies the contrasts so we may sharpen our appreciation for who we are and what we have.
A Blurring of Distinctions
Why do this specifically on Motzaei Shabbos?
Rav Shmuel Rozovsky had a mirror next to his front door. Before he left his home, he would examine his reflection: adjust his collar, brush off an errant piece of dirt, straighten his tie. A moment before departing to the outside world, he would make sure his appearance was in order, befitting a rosh yeshivah who represented Toras Hashem.
After spending 25 hours immersed in the sacred, free of all “chol,” we re-enter a reality of the sacred interwoven with the mundane. A moment before departing the kedushah and immersing in the admixture of kodesh and chol, we ensure that our valuation is correct and everything is in order.
Rav Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, chelek 4) explains that “havlatah,” contrast, not only highlights differences, but also ensures we don’t blur the lines on the important parts of life. “Im ein daas, ein havdalah — if one lacks knowledge, he cannot distinguish.”
When Adam and Chavah ate from the Eitz Hadaas, according to Nefesh HaChaim, the spiritual construct of good and evil shifted. Until that point, ra (evil) was external to them. This quality of external allowed man to more objectively relate to evil; he didn’t identify with it as a part of himself. Choosing tov (good) was as simple as an equation of one plus one, as uncomplicated as the decision to flee from raging fire.
When Adam and Chavah sinned, the ra that had previously been external was internalized. Now choosing tov was no longer a simple proposition; ra and tov were intermingled. Choosing tov was a moral imperative fraught with indecision. To effectively reject ra, man had to rely on his daas to be mavdil, to differentiate between the two.
From that point on, the lines are blurred, and Havdalah, the capacity to isolate tov from ra, is a crucial primary step in following the will of Hashem.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash, parshas Acharei Mos) explains that when ra and tov mix together, we begin to identify with the chol, the mundane, and it becomes our point of stimulation, pleasure, and anticipation. We regard kodesh, our maasim tovim, as external to us — they aren’t who we really are, they’re things we have to do.
What’s a more compelling reason for me to get out of bed in the morning? A 70% off sale or something more elevated? What brings me more personal satisfaction? The floral arrangement done just so, or the damaging words I bit back just in time?
Are we invigorated by the mundane? Has the sacred become a duty to be discharged? Have we expelled the kodesh to outside our core and internalized the chol?
This is the price we pay when we aren’t mavdil.
After 25 hours of concentrated kodesh, we embark on a week whose convoluted mixture of kodesh and chol demands spiritual fortitude to tease out the good from the bad, so we may embrace the medium that truly matches our core.
Before we take our final leave from Shabbos, we examine our reflection, searching for the lines that may be blurred, strengthening the boundaries. We make Havdalah. .
Thank you for accompanying me on the journey toward understanding and appreciating the spiritual import of Shabbos. This is the last article in the Oasis in Time series. I look forward to exploring other fundamentals of Yiddishkeit with you.
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 757)
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