The ritual of Havdalah has three symbols: wine to represent the joy and sweetness of Shabbat, spices to comfort us for the loss of Shabbat, and a braided candle lit with fire to symbolize the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the six days of work. Blessings are made over each symbol, followed by a blessing to sanctify the distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Then the candle is extinguished in the wine and a new week is declared. (You can download a Havdalah service on the Resources page.)
The ritual is well known, but there are mystical origins to havdalah that are not often taught or understood. This is not just a ritual for saying goodbye to Shabbat. Havdalah is a moment in which we rehearse the divisions that separate the world of material reality from the world of spiritual reality. Shabbat is understood as a gateway to the supernal world and havdalah marks the transition in which the two worlds meet.
The spices we smell at havdalah do not just comfort us for the loss of a day of rest. They also cushion the shock from losing the extra soul that fills us on Shabbat. We learn of this extra soul from the passage in Torah we recite on Shabbat that begins, "V'sham'ru v'nei Yisrael et haShabbat," "The children of Israel shall keep Shabbat" (Exodus 31:16). The passage ends with the phrase, "Uvayom hashvi'i shavat vayinafash," which can be translated as, "On the seventh day [God] rested and was ensouled." This extra soul is within us just for Shabbat and departs from us when Shabbat ends.
We have two souls, one for our physical existence and one for our spiritual existence. Shabbat is the gateway in which we are so in touch with the world of spiritual existence that that second soul can even enter into and survive inside of our material bodies. It is a time when the world of ultimate meaning is so close to us that we can almost touch, taste, smell, see and feel it with our bodily senses.
The twisted havdalah candle also has mystical meanings. It is a torch made up of at least two wicks. The dual candle represents the duality of the material and the spiritual worlds. While the blessing is made over the fire of the candle, there is a traditional practice to gaze at ones cupped hand to observe the light of the candle glinting off the fingertips and the shadow cast by the fingers on the palm. The contemplation of light and dark reminds us of the distinction between the world that we can see around us and the hidden world of God's presence.
The reflected light off of the fingernails has further symbolism. According to the Zohar, when God created the first human beings, they were clothed in bodies of pure light. The soul of the human being shined visibly within this translucent body. It was only after they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam and Eve were given material bodies made of flesh. However, as a reminder of our original form, God allowed us to retain a single vestige of those original bodies. Our translucent fingernails are a reminder that, in our origin, we are beings of light. As Shabbat departs, we gaze at the light of the candle reflected in our fingernails to remember this truth about ourselves.
We are more than physical bodies, and the world is more than what we usually perceive with our physical senses. The world we live in is only complete when it includes the universe of meaning, connection, spirit and the hidden truth of divine presence. Havdalah is a moment to reflect on that universe and to claim it as an ongoing part of our glowing, spiritual selves.