Havdalah: Time to Get to Work!

We observe Shabbat every week and bid it farewell at Havdalah. Rabbi Ari Witkin offers a different approach to this ritual.

Each week as Shabbat ends, we offer the prayers of havdalah, the ritual of distinction that marks the transition from the transcendence and holiness of Shabbat to the immanent and mundane time of hol, the days of work. This liminal moment between Shabbat and the week has traditionally been understood as one of waning splendor.

As we experience the departure of our neshamah yeteirah—the additional spirit that joins us each week for Shabbat—Jewish tradition expects that we will feel a sense of sadness. After all, if Shabbat is indeed “a taste of the world to come,” a glimpse of perfection, then naturally we would have an experience of decreased joy upon its departure. In acknowledgement of the spiritual descent one encounters at Shabbat’s end and building on the kabbalistic assertion that the sense of smell is directly linked to the soul, the havdalah ceremony includes a blessing over besamim (spices), the lingering scent of which can help us hold on to the sweetness of Shabbat for even just a few more moments.

In many ways, this concept dovetails quite naturally with Judaism’s implicit disposition towards yearning. Ours is a religion of longing for something better. It is a tradition of faith not only in the possibility, but the inevitability of a better “world to come.” At the same time, however, we are not simply waiting passively for that world to arrive. On the contrary, we are integral actors in bringing about the world we want to live in. So while Shabbat provides us with an important and uplifting opportunity to catch our breath—to refresh our souls and to remind ourselves of what we are working towards—I would like to suggest that we reject the notion that we feel sad each week as it departs.

For if olam ha’ba is just that—“the world to come”—then the most potent taste of holiness we can experience in this life rests not in the vision of a future that we only glimpse on Shabbat, but in the work of actualizing that holiness we engage in during the other six days of the week. Holding this in mind, we can enter those last moments—that space of havdalah—with not only a sense of gratitude for the Shabbat rest we have just experienced, but also a spirit of excitement for the holiness of the work we will do in the days to follow. In this way, the ikar (essence) of the ritual of havdalah is transformed from one of holding fast to one of reaching forward, from a desire for more menukhah (rest) to a thirst for avodah (work).

For years, I’ve been moved by the power of havdalah, but on the occasion of my graduation from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the symbolism took on added resonance. Six months ago, my classmates and I were joined by family and friends, community members and teachers, staring out at the unfolding of a life of service to the Jewish people and the broader community. I was overcome with excitement to do the work. Of course, it can be easy to see the week and the seemingly endless “To Do” list of life as a burden. But each week as I enter Shabbat, this reframe helps me to cultivate a great sense of gratitude for the incredible opportunity we have each been given to do the work.

The world we dream of—the one Shabbat reminds us is possible—often feels like it’s quite a long way away. By the time Friday afternoon arrives, the invitation to retreat and refresh is a welcome gift, but just as it arrives each week, so, too, does Shabbat depart. And while we will certainly be ready for its return, its sweetness is made all the richer by the work we invest in to get there.

As that famous teaching from Pirkei Avot 2:21 (Ethics of the Fathers) reminds us, “the work is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Let us embrace the work, those holy endeavors we wake up to do each day, knowing that although we won’t finish, it will never be finished without us.

Rabbi Ari Witkin is director of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

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