A few years ago, we hosted some friends for Shabbat … and after we returned from shul on Saturday evening, our guest made an unusual request. He asked if he could call his mother and recite havdala for her.
Of course, I obliged. His father — who had recited havdala for his mom for more than 50 years — had died a few years before that, and our guest had been reciting havdala over the phone for her since that time.
I thought it was a really nice gesture — and I filed it away somewhere in my brain, perhaps mentioning it to one or two people every so often.
When my dad passed away last year in April, after 65 years of marriage to my mother, I remembered this meaningful gesture … and I asked my mom if she would like me to recite the havdala service for her each week. She liked the idea — and I have been phoning her to join in our havdala prayer ever since.*
I must say that we are both enjoying our now-weekly tradition, even though my mom cannot smell the spices or see the candle’s flame. After I’m done, we share a shavua tov greeting, and catch up on our respective Shabbat activities – what we ate, what we read, and how we spent the day. Perhaps soon, once everyone gets vaccinated, I can tell her about our Shabbat guests as well.
The havdala ceremony has an interesting history. The basic formula for the prayer was composed by the Men of the Great Assembly in the fourth century BCE. At that time, the people were very poor, and not everyone could afford a cup of wine for havdala. Therefore, they instituted the havdala prayer as part of the maariv prayer. When the Jews became more financially stable, they created a havdala ceremony with wine. It was eventually decided to keep both forms of havdala, and this is how things have remained until this day.
The primary symbols of havdala are the braided candle, the kiddush cup containing wine, and a spice box containing sweet-smelling spices. The lighted candle symbolizes the light of Shabbat, and the strands of the braid symbolize the many types of Jews in the world, all of whom are part of one unified people. The wine is a symbol of the joy of Shabbat, as we say goodbye for another week. Similarly, the sweet-smelling spices symbolize the sweetness of Shabbat, whose pleasant aroma we breath in one last time so that it might last us through the week to come until we can welcome Shabbat once again.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen, spiritual leader at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, CT, recently gave a shiur on the havdala ceremony, in which he made the following very timely points:
He said that the havdala prayer is a message of faith and strength that we should never lose hope in building a better world.
In addition, we must never forget the difference between the holy and profane, a distinction that we have certainly witnessed in our country this past month. America is founded on ethical monotheism and righteousness and the values that every human being regardless of faith, belief, or political persuasion is created in God’s image. As a country, we must remain a moral beacon.
Finally, in places of despair, we must foster hope, and in places of darkness, we must bring light. There is not a single person who cannot make a difference in mending a broken world.
I have been thinking about these ideas recently while I’ve recited havdala each Saturday night with my mom. We have bid farewell to the old and we have welcomed the new, for both our country and our week.
May God watch over our country, and may our leaders and each of us embody the best version of ourselves and see the light of God in every human being. And when we say the havdala prayer each Saturday night, may we have the merit to experience His holy presence in our country.
*Most halachic authorities rule that one does not fulfill his or her requirement for saying havdala by hearing another person recite it over the phone. In fact, some poskim say that if for whatever reason you are not able to fulfill the obligation to hear havdala on Saturday night, you should recite it during the following week. Please check with your local rabbi for further guidance on this subject.