In Judaism, the concept of making distinctions and separations permeates many facets of religious life. We distinguish between holy time and mundane, or ordinary, time. We declare certain books to be holy and distinguish them in the way we study and treat them, from books which are mundane. We treat holy spaces 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. We, too, make distinctions in our lives, and primary among them is the distinction between sacred time and ordinary time. To mark the beginning of sacred time, we light two candles and recite a berakhah (blessing) which praises God who commanded us to kindle the lights in celebration of the occasion. We mark the end of that sacred time period with a ceremony called Havdalah, which means "separation." It, too, begins with light, as we kindle a braided candle. The most common time to perform the ceremony of Havdalah is weekly at the end of Shabbat when three stars appear in the sky. Havdalah is also performed at the end of other festivals and holy days.
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 birchat havdalah which praises God for making distinctions, particularly the distinction between the holy and the mundane. The ceremony ends with 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.
For the Havdalah service, a kiddush cup is traditional filled to overflowing as an expression of hope that the coming week will be a good one. The tradition arises from an earlier custom that the spilling of wine can protect you from evil spirits. Say:
Set the cup down without drinking from it and recite the blessing over the spices.
Pass the spice container around so that each person can inhale the scent. Then say the blessing over the Havdalah candle.
Next everyone raises their hands and looks at their fingernails in the light of the flame and watches the play of shadow and light on their hands. One explanation for this tradition is that it is a sign of the pleasure derived from the light. Another is that the reflection of the light on the fingernails casts a shadow on the palm which shows the distinction between light and darkness, and the end of Shabbat. The legal reason for this practice is that it is important that the participants utilize the light so that the blessing over it is not made in vain and this is one way of utilizing the light. The final blessing is recited:
Take a sip of wine or juice. Men traditionally have been the only ones to drink because of a superstition that if a woman drinks from the Havdala glass, she will grow a beard. Another explanation is related to the story of Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, which grew grapes to make wine.
After drinking the wine, many people have the custom to pour the remaining liquid onto a plate and douse the flame in it.