Rabbi’s Corner: Havdalah and Elul – Igniting a Path Toward Hope

(My brother Isaac, me and our then-youngest brother David, holding our hands over the havdalah candle as we recited the blessing).


When I was growing up, we would make havdalah, the beautiful ritual that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week, as Shabbat ended every Saturday evening. My younger siblings and I loved taking turns holding the kiddush cup (wine represents the joy of Shabbat which we hope to bring with us into the coming week), lifting up the beautiful spice box (the spices represent the sweetness of Shabbat), and holding our hands over the multi-wicked candle (the flame represents the ability to do work and the brightness and warmth of Shabbat).

The word “havdalah” means “separation:” we can separate between Holy time and ordinary time or our status prior to a special event and that following. My mother made a special havdalah ritual prior to having her double-radical mastectomy for stage IV breast cancer. She made havdalah the evening before each of my siblings’ weddings. She loved havdalah. She loved it so much, that when she was on life-support, we “sang her out” of this world and into the next with the havdalah melody she loved. She knew we loved her, and as we sang, her soul gently left her body. Her cantor began her funeral with that same havdalah melody. Another separation for my siblings and me.

Despite this poignant memory of havdalah surrounding my mother’s death, havdalah remains a moving, joyful and meaningful ritual for me. It connects me to my family, to my mother, z”l, and to our Jewish notion that there is always hope. If you can hold a cup of joy, smell something sweet and hold a flame lighting your way, there is always hope for a future of joy, sweetness and light. We just need to do our part to make that happen.

Tonight, we begin the ninth day of the month of Elul. Just as havdalah separates Shabbat from the rest of the week, Elul calls us to separate ourselves from our daily routines and delve into the realm of introspection and repentance. Elul encourages us to differentiate between our past actions that need mending and the potential for growth that lies ahead.

Like the flame of the havdalah candle, Elul shines a light toward a future bright with promise and hope. The candle’s flame, flickering in the darkness, symbolizes the hope that one spark can bring light to even the darkest corners of our souls, if we can find a way to ignite the light of renewal and transformation. Then we’ll taste the joy and sweetness of the year ahead.

I invite you to join TBS in our exploration of havdalah in both its literal and metaphorical meanings:

First, tonight we will pray from a special siddur (prayerbook) dedicated to help us mark this transition (a “havdalah” of sorts) for Elul: Mishkan HaLev. Mishkan HaLev is full of beautiful readings, poetry, meditations, commentary, and translations to ready the heart and the mind to enter the High Holy Days.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything Is Gonna Be All Right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, of truth-telling about your own soul first of all and its condition; the place of resistance and defiance, from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we’re seeing, asking them what they see. 

(By Victoria Safford. Mishkan HaLev: Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul, Rabbi Janet Marder, editor. (p. 81). CCAR Press.)

Tomorrow, August 25th, I invite you, your loved ones and your friends to join us for Havdalah in the Park (Yorba Regional Park). We’ll strengthen our connections as a community, enjoy each other’s company, schmooze, help our youth with games and fun, eat and then finish with a beautiful Havdalah ceremony. Click here for more information.


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