From darkness to light

The Havdalah ceremony which marks the beginning of a new week and separates the holiness of Shabbat from the mundane weekdays is a relatively well known tradition.  However, how many of us actually know what the origins of this unusual ritual are?  The core components of the Havdalah ceremony are four blessings; one over wine, one over spices, one over light, and a final blessing which blesses God for separating between holy and mundane.

You can listen to singer/ songwriter Debbie Friedman z"l sing her wildly popular version of the blessing here:

The ceremony is mentioned in the Talmud, and chazal (the sages) debate over whether the mitzvah is based in the Torah or is rabbinic in origin.  During Medieval times the ceremony was expanded by Jews of Ashkenazi origin to include poetic liturgy with the theme of redemption, such as this prayer recited to begin the home ceremony each week:
Behold the God who gives me deliverance!
I am confident, unafraid;
For the Lord is my strength and might,
And He has been my deliverance.
Joyfully shall you draw water
From the fountains of deliverance.
Deliverance is the Lord's; Your blessing be upon Your people!
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our haven.  So may it be for us!
The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.
I raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of the Lord.
Keeping with the theme of redemption, it became a custom to sing Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet) because according to one tradition, the Mashiach (Messiah) will arrive at Havdalah time and Eliyahu Hanavi will herald his arrival. 
The Wine
The Talmud (Pes. 106a) teaches that we use wine to mark the ending of Shabbat just as we used wine to sanctify the Shabbat.  Chazal elaborate that while the Havdalah blessing was originally only part of the amida (slient, standing, prayer in traditional worship), it later became a home ritual as well.  Today it is often recited both in the synagogue and then repeated at home, much as Friday night Kiddush.  There are many customs surrounding the use of the wine which has been blessed at Havdalah; using it to extinguish the candle, wetting our fingers with it and then touching our eyes with it so the light of the mitzvah will remain before our eyes through the week, and touching our pockets with it for the blessing of prosperity. 
The Spices
Sweet smelling spices are blessed and passed around for all to enjoy during the Havdalah ceremony.  This is generally thought to be a symbol of our prayer for a good new week.  On a more mystical level, Resh Lakish is quoted by the Zohar as saying that we smell spices because the neshama y'teira (extra soul) we received on Shabbat is departing, hence the need for the spices to revive us. (Zohar ii: 204a) 
The Candle
One of the reasons given for why we bless a flame after Shabbat ends is described in the Talmud.  We learn that Adam created fire after the first Shabbat ended because he was fearful of darkness and sin.
The light which God created on the first day lit up the world for man from the time he was created until the sunset of the following day, when the darkness surrounding him filled him with dread and the fear that the tempting serpent would altogether overpower him. Then God furnished him with two bricks, which he rubbed together until fire was produced; whereupon he recited a benediction over the fire: "Blessed are You, O God, who created the lights of the fire." (Pes. 54)
A similar midrash suggests that Adam was so thankful and awed by the fire that he put his hands in front of it and looked at them illuminated by the flame.  This is one of the reasons given for why we look at our hands by the candlelight during the ceremony.  Another reason given is that we generally must benefit from something that we bless, so that the blessing is not recited in vain.  We therefore use the light to illuminate the area where our fingernails meet our fingers.

The tradition to use a braided candle also has many explanations.  One is that because the word for fire is plural in the Hebrew of the blessing, we must use a candle with multiple wicks.  Another tradition suggests that we come together at the beginning of Shabbat disparate people like the two separate candles of Shabbat, but by the end of Shabbat, our lives have become intertwined.  Many Havdalah candles have six wicks to remind us of the six days of the week after Shabbat. 

Perhaps it is the Midrash about Adam being fearful of sin that led to the custom of singing my favorite part of the ceremony, the medieval hymn "HaMavdil."  You can hear a version sung by Pharoh's Daughter similar to the one we sing at home here.  The refrain is translated thus:  "May He who separates between the sacred and the everyday, forgive our sins; may He multiply our offspring and our money like the sand, and like the stars at night. A good week!"  Shockingly, I could not find the full version of the prayer anywhere on the internet.  So I photocopied it from my siddur for you.

The themes of sin and forgiveness are very prevalent in this prayer, and as a matter of fact, it has been suggested that this prayer was originally written for the Neilah service, which is the service that precedes Havdalah after Yom Kippur.  I find the imagery and words in this poem beautiful.  As a matter of fact, when I was looking for a piece of art for our home that had Jewish text imposed over images, I found a super cool website of New York and Argentine artists that make gorgeous personalized ketubot in Buenos Aires, and are able to use other Jewish texts in their art as well.  Ben and I chose a piece of art called "Havdalah" and chose to have the words to the HaMavdil prayer incorporated into the art.  This is our personalized piece which came all the way from Buenos Aires and was commissioned entirely over the internet!
The connection between Havdalah and sin and forgiveness is not hard to make.  The very themes of Havdalah are about separating light from dark, which are in themselves metaphors for God and distance from God (or sin) respectively.  The theme of Havdalah which is most meaningful to me is the theme of redemption which is not only about a future time of Mashiach when we will all live in an eternal Shabbat.  It is also redemption from our sins, and being able to see God as our hope and our saving grace.