Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה) is a ceremony recited at the termination of Shabbat and holidays. Its blessings emphasize the distinction between the sacred and the ordinary, particularly in regard to the holy day that is departing and the ordinary weekday that is coming.
In Judaism, the concept of making distinctions and separations permeates many facets of religious life. There are distinctions between holy time and ordinary time; certain books are holy and distinguished from books which are mundane; holy spaces are also treated with particular reverence. The Torah teaches that God created the world by making distinctions - first between light and darkness, next between water and empty space, finally between earth and water. To mark the beginning of Shabbat, the sacred time, Jews light two candles and recite a berachah (blessing) which praises God who commanded to kindle lights in celebration of the occasion. Similarly, Jews mark the end Shabbat and holidays with havdalah.
Havdalah is one of the most ancient blessings: according to the Talmud "the men of the Great Synagogue instituted blessings and prayers, sanctifications and Havdalot for Israel" (Ber. 33a). Some authorities hold that the obligation to recite the havdalah derives from the Torah. In the middle of the medieval period, the custom began of reciting havdalah over a cup of wine in the synagogue as well, in order to exempt those who had no wine at their home.
The primary symbols of havdalah are the braided candle, kiddush cup containing wine and spice box containing sweet-smelling spices. The lighted candle symbolizes the light of Shabbat and the strands of the braid have been interpreted as the many types of Jews in the world, all of whom are part of one unified people. The wine is, as always, a symbol of joy. We take one last sip of the joy of Shabbat as we bid the sabbath goodbye for another week. Similarly, the sweet-smelling spices symbolize the sweetness of Shabbat, whose pleasant aroma we breath in one last time that it might last us through the week to come until we can welcome Shabbat again. There is also a special blessing which praises God for making distinctions, particularly the distinction between the holy and the mundane. The text of the havdalah ceremony can be found below.
There are many customs connected with havdalah that some people observe: the pouring of some of the wine on the ground as an omen of blessing; passing the last drop of wine in the cup over the eyes and extinguishing the candle with the remaining drops; when saying the blessing over the light, some look at their fingernails and some at the lines on their palms. Many have the custom to end the ceremony ends by singing Eliyahu HaNavi in the hopes that Elijah the Prophet will come to herald the messianic age when the world will become one long Shabbat.
Sources: Rabbi Scheinerman's homepage and Cardin, Rabbi Nina Beth. The Tapestry of Jewish Time. NJ: Behrman House, 2000. Kolatch, Alfred J. The Jewish Book of Why. NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 1989; Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.