Havdalah: Your Priestly Responsibility

Havdalah: Your Priestly Responsibility

“Havdalah” means “division.” But the havdalah ritual does not divide Jews — from other traditions or from each other.

Before Havdalah at Limmud Vancouver

Before the havdalah ritual at Limmud Vancouver, I’ll be presenting on a inter-faith topic. Sacred Texts: Three Religious Traditions in Twenty-Five Words or Less. What can we learn from common themes in Torah, New Testament and Quran?

Preparing for the session has led me to a related question. What can we, as Jews, learn from rituals common to multiple religious traditions?

Priestly Duties at the Mishkan (Tabernacle)

This week’s Torah portion is Shmini. Literally: the eighth day. Opening day at the mishkan, the artisan-built desert sanctuary tabernacle. But tragedy strikes. The altar misfires, and two young priests die. A few weeks later, their father, High Priest Aaron, purifies the sanctuary. The mishkan re-opens, to serve its original purpose. Centuries later, the Jerusalem Temple continues the mishkan’s functions.

At the well-functioning mishkan, priests help people celebrate, grieve, heal, and restore justice. People bring fresh food – a still living kosher mammal or bird, or a measure of grain. The priests butcher, prepare, and cook the fresh food. They add fragrant spices, pour libations, and roast on an open fire. Some offerings are fully burned, symbolically helping a problem disappear. But most often, the offerer, the priest, the community, and God share the food. (God’s portion is the smoke that rises up.) With the help of priests, life-cycle issues become opportunities for spiritual and communal support.

A Modern Day Temple: Fire, Spice, and Liquid Offerings

Recently, my graduate students and I visited an ISKCON Temple. ISKCON stands for International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu sect. We entered the sanctuary. At the front, we saw a wall, decorated to look like a fancy gate with blue sky above. Exactly as I imagine the first Jerusalem Temple! We watched the priest offer fire, spices, and liquid to their deities. Just as the priests in Jerusalem did.

An Ancient Ritual: Fire, Spice and Liquid at Havdalah

Fire, spices, and liquid. Of course, all I could think about was the Jewish ritual of havdalah. This Saturday night ritual marks a division between Shabbat and the work week. At havdalah, we light a candle flame, smell sweet spices, and pour liquid. Then, we bless God for creating fire, spices, and wine. The Hebrew word havdalah means “division.”  So, its final blessing thanks God for four divisions. Holy/ordinary. Day/night. Shabbat/working days. Israel/the nations.

I’m a teacher of inter-religious studies. So, I wonder a lot about the divisions and commonalities between traditions. And I’ve been puzzled by havdalah’s celebration of Israel’s distinction from other traditions. Yes, we have a unique culture. But we are also human. Like everyone, we try, fail, forgive, and repair.

Still, havdalah calls us to pay attention to something special. But to what?

Remember Your Priestly Duties

Pay attention, says havdalah, to the fire, spices, and liquid. Priests work with these props. To make sure people don’t celebrate or suffer alone. But it’s not just a job for professional priests. Instead, it takes a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). All of us should care for other people. We should not leave it to the pros. And what happens in a nation of priests? Ordinary pain calls us to holy service. We turn dark nights of the soul to daylight. Dreary days to festivals of love. Thus, we are no longer a random group of people. We become an intentional community. And so, a better version of ourselves.

But this is not just a theoretical analysis. If you’ve performed havdalah, then you know its delights. Candles in the dark. Sensual fragrances. Sweet wine. Singing voices. Shared mystical feeling. Officially, this ritual marks the end of Shabbat. But Shabbat ends with or without it. So, what does the ritual accomplish? If you’ve performed it, then you know how it feels. Havdalah creates community.

A revised version of a post for Limmud on One Leg. Photo credit: Havdalah at URJ Jacobs Camp, by Bill Aron from Shalom Y’all.

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