HABDALAH or ABDALAH or ABDALTA ( = "separation"; "distinction"):

The rabbinical term for the benedictions and prayers by means of which a division is made between times of varying degrees of holiness, e.g., between Sabbath and work-day, festival and work-day, or Sabbath and festival. The rabbinical law requires that a formal separation be made between holy and profane times, and prohibits the resumption of ordinary work after a holy day until such division shall have been made. This is accomplished by pronouncing the Habdalah. At the evening service of a day following one of greater holiness, words expressing the distinction are inserted in the "'Amidah"; and just before the conclusion of the service a special Habdalah ceremony is performed. This is begun, in all cases, by pronouncing a benediction over a cup of wine, or, if wine can not be obtained, over any other beverage except water ordinarily used in the country where the ceremony takes place. At the conclusion of the Sabbath are added brief benedictions over spices and a freshly kindled light. These are followed by a lengthier benediction in which the distinction between the holy and the profane is emphasized, and thanks are given to God as the Author of this distinction.

Habdalah Light.Blessing Over Light. HABDALAH SPICE-BOXES.1. In the possession of Maurice Herrmann, New York. 2, 7. In the British Museum, London. 3, 5, 6, 11. In the Musée de Cluny, Paris. 4, 13. In the possession of Foly Raunheim. New York. 8, 14. In the possession of Leonard L. Cohen, London. 9. In the Victoria and Albert museum, London. 10. In the possession of Heinrich Frauberger, Frankfort-on-the-Main. 12. In Temple Shearith, Israel, New York. 15. In the Bevis Marks Synagogue. London. 16. In the possession of Saly Fürth, Mayence. 17. In the United States National Museum, Washington.

While pronouncing the benediction over the light it is customary to open and close the hands and to gaze at the finger-nails. For this, three reasons are given: (1) in order to obey the Talmudic precept which prohibits the pronunciation of a benediction over light unless one derives some advantage therefrom ("En mebarekin 'al ha-ner 'ad she-ye'otu le-oro"; Ber. 53b); (2) because the nails in their unceasing growth are a symbol of the prosperity which, it is hoped, the week will bring ("Ṭur," in the name of Hai Gaon); (3) because the blood, i.e., the life, can be seen through the fingers.

Some modern rabbis consider the blessing over the light as a recognition of the importance of the element fire as an instrument designed by God for the economic subjugation of the world (S. R. Hirsch, "Choreb," p. 109). The usual interpretation is that light having been created by God at the beginning of the week, it is therefore proper to pronounce a benediction over it at the beginning of each recurring week (Gen. R. xii.). A more natural explanation seems to be that, since fire may not be used in any form on the Sabbath, its employment is a demonstration of the fact that the Sabbath has ended and the working-days have recommenced; its use, therefore, is very appropriate in a Habdalah or separation ceremony. This explanation is corroborated by the fact that the blessing over the light forms no part of the Habdalah after festivals on which the use of fire is permitted, while in the Habdalah after the Day of Atonement, which resembles the Sabbath in the prohibition of the use of fire, this benediction is inserted. The candle or taper over which the blessing is spoken must have at least two wicks, giving two or more lights, since the language of the benediction is plural, "who creates the lights of fire" ("bore me'ore haesh").

Use of Sweet-Smelling Herbs.

All varieties of spices and odoriferous plants are suitable for the benediction of the spices, except that they must not have been used for any obnoxious purpose, as, for instance, to disguise the odor of decomposition or other foul smells, or for idolatrous worship. Some authorities prohibit the use of sharp, acrid spices, such as pepper. The use of myrtle is enjoined, in allusion to Isa. lv. 13, "Instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle," but it is not obligatory. The reasons usually given for the employment of spices in the Habdalah are that perceptions and enjoyments through the sense of smell are the most delicate; that they afford not a gross, material pleasure, but rather a spiritual one; and that the perfume of spices is, therefore, a comfort to the over-soul of the Sabbath ("neshamah yeterah"), which grieves when the holy day departs (Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 297; Baḥya to Gen. xxxii.-xxxvi.).

Habdalah Spice-Box and Taper-Holder.(In the Musée de Cluny, Paris.)

The order of benedictions in the Habdalah is indicated by the mnemonic word , formed from the initial letters of , = "wine, spices, light, separation-formula." It is customary to sing hymns at the Habdalah service after the close of the Sabbath. Of these, several contain references to the prophet Elijah, who, according to one view, will appear after the conclusion of that day. These hymns are sometimes accompanied by instrumental music, which, forbidden on the Sabbath, is appropriate for the Habdalah. Perhaps the best known of these hymns is that beginning "May He who distinguishes between holy and profane forgive our sins" ("Hamabdil ben ḳodesh le-ḥol ḥaṭotenu yimḥol"). Rabbi Moses Sofer, following Mordecai ben Hillel on Yoma, has pointed out that this hymn was originally intended for the Habdalah service after the Day of Atonement ("Ḥatam Sofer, Oraḥ Ḥayyim," No. 67), and it is so employed among the Sephardim when the Day of Atonement falls on the Sabbath.

Silver Spice-Box for Habdalah.(In the possession of S. Heilbut, London.)
  • Ṭur and Maginne Ereẓ, Orah Ḥayyim, § 297;
  • Levinsohn, Mekore Minhagim, Berlin, 1846;
  • S. R. Hirsch, Choreb, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1889;
  • Dembitz, Jewish Services in Synagogue and Home, Philadelphia, 1898;
  • Landshuth, Hegyon Leb, Königsberg, 1845;
  • Seligman Baer, 'Abodat Yisrael, Rödelheim, 1868.
A. B. D.

The Habdalah benediction reads: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe! Who hast made a separation between what is holy and what is profane [Lev. x. 10; Ezek. xlii. 20]; between light and darkness [Gen. i. 4, 18]; between Israel and other nations [Lev. xx. 26]; between the seventh day and the six working days. Blessed art Thou who hast separated the holy from the profane." According to another, and apparently older,tradition, these words were added: "between clean and unclean [Lev. xi. 47, xx. 25]; between the upper and the lower waters [Gen. i. 6, 7]; between land and sea [Gen. i. 10]; between the priestly tribe of Levi and the common people of Israel [Deut. x. 8]" (see Pes. 104a). The questions as to whether the benediction over the spices or that over the light was to be recited first, and as to whether the benediction should precede or follow grace after meals, were matters of controversy between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. The Habdalah formula was originally recited in the home at the opening of the evening meal or before each course (comp. Ta'an. iv. 3, which shows that there was no Friday or Saturday evening service in the Temple; see also Herzfeld, "Gesch. des Volkes Israel," iii. [ii.] 209); soon, however, it came to be recited in the synagogue also: sometimes as a special benediction of the Shemoneh 'Esreh (this was the view of R. Akiba); sometimes inserted in the last benediction but one (this was the view of R. Eliezer); but it finally became the custom to insert it in the fourth benediction (Ber. v. 2).

Origin of Habdalah.

The Habdalah benediction was afterward ascribed to the "men of the Great Synagogue," and it was held to have been originally instituted as a synagogal benediction; in times of prosperity for the Jews it was the custom to recite it over the cup of wine at the home meal, but when distress befell the people it was recited in its original place (Ber. 33a). The many differences prevailing among the Tannaim and Amoraim concerning the Habdalah (see Pes. 103b et seq.; Ḥul. i. 7; Shab. 150b; Yer. Ber. v. 9b) indicate either the lack of any fixed custom or the want of an authority able to establish the custom permanently. While Abba Arika declared the Habdalah in the synagogue to be of greater importance than that at the table over the wine-cup (Ber. 33a), others promised future salvation (Pes. 113a), family continuity through male descendants (Sheb. 18b), and material blessings (Pirḳe R. El. xxi.) to him who recited the Habdalah over the wine-cup. No one was allowed to eat before the Habdalah ceremony (Pes. 107a).

Habdalah Light. Habdalah Spice-Box.(In the Possession of H. Frauberger, Frankfort-on-the-Main.)

Especial importance was attached to the Habdalah light, the reason given being that it was created on the first day (Pes. 53b, 54a). Opinions differed, however, as to whether it was preferable to recite the benediction over a light produced afresh by friction between pieces of wood or stone, or over a light that had been burning before (Ber. 52b; Pes. 54a). A blazing, torch-like light was considered most appropriate (Pes. 8a). The following legend, obviously based on the connection of the Habdalah with the fourth benediction of Shemoneh 'Esreh—the thanksgiving for the reason with which God has endowed man—is told by Jose, the pupil of Akiba: "Fire was one of the things God had left uncreated when Sabbath set in; but after the close of the Sabbath, God endowed man with divine wisdom. Man then took two stones, and by grinding them together produced fire; after which he recited the benediction: 'Blessed be He who createth the blaze of the fire'" (Pes. 53b). This is elaborated in Gen. R. xi. (comp. Pesiḳ. R. 23; Yer. Ber. viii. 12b): "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 offered a benediction over the fire." According to Pirḳe R. El. xx., God sent him a pillar of fire, and, holding His hands against it, said the benediction over fire; then, removing His hands, said the Habdalah benediction. Stress is also laid on the fact that one recites the benediction on seeing the blaze of the fire reflected either in the wine-cup or on the finger-nails; if there is no fire, aglance at the reflection of the stars on the finger-nails should prompt the benediction (comp. Midr. Teh. to Ps. xxxv. 2). Healing powers were also ascribed to the Habdalah wine when put upon the eyes (Pirḳe R. El. l.c.; comp. Shab. 113b for the "Ḳiddush" wine).

Many other customs sprang up with regard to the Habdalah light, for which a wax candle came into use later on (see "Tanya," xxi., and Ṭur Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 298).

The Spices, and Habdalah Legends.

The spices formed another subject for mystic speculation. The remark of Resh Laḳish that Adam was given a higher soul on Sabbath and was deprived of it at the close of the day, was connected with the custom of reciting a benediction over spices (see Samuel b. Meïr, Pes. 102b; Maimonides, "Yad," Shabbat, xxix. 29). A myrtle was preferably chosen, cabalistic reasons being given for it (Kol Bo xli.; comp. Zohar, Wayaḳhel, and Ḳiẓẓur Shene Luḥot ha-Berit, Hilkot Shabbat). According to the German custom, Isa. xii. 2-3, Ps. iii. 9, xlvi. 12, Esth. viii. 16, and Ps. cxci. 13 are recited before the Habdalah. The Roman Maḥzor and the Portuguese use different verses. With Isa. xii. 3 a legend is connected, according to which water from the wondrous well of Miriam may be drawn at that time, and healing for diseases be obtained by drinking it (Kol Bo xli.). According to another legend Elijah the Prophet, who does not appear on the eve of Sabbaths or of holy days ('Er. 43b), but who is eager to reward faithful Sabbath observance, is expected to appear at the beginning of a new week and fortify those who wait for the redemption of Israel (Abudraham, Hilkot Moẓe'e Shabbat, and Ibn Yarḥi, in Ha-Manhig, Hilkot Shabbat, 71). Many songs and recitations, as well as conjurations referring to Elijah the Prophet, are recited before and after the Habdalah ceremony, together with prayers for the new week's work. It is especially significant that a little prayer in the German vernacular is said, because many pious Jews of old would speak only Hebrew, as the holy language, on the Sabbath day. See Ha-Mabdil and Elijah in Medieval Folk-Lore.

  • Baer, 'Abodat Yisrael, 1868, pp. 310 et seq.;
  • M. Brück, Pharisäische Volkssitten und Ritualien, pp. 108-123;
  • Geiger, Lehr- und Lesebuch zur Sprache der Mischnah, pp. 66 et seq.;
  • idem, Jüd. Zeit. vi. 105-116.
A. K.Superstitions.

As one of the chief home ceremonies of the Jews it is natural that a certain amount of superstition should have grown up around the custom; but whether such superstitions were derived from the surrounding peoples or not, it is difficult to say. Thus both in Russia and Galicia it is believed that if a girl drink of the wine of Habdalah she will get a mustache ("Urquell," 1893, p. 74), and the same belief is held among the Jews of Baden ("Mitteilungen," iii. 9). If you sprinkle the table-cloth with the wine of Habdalah you will have a "full week" ("Urquell," 1893, p. 33), and if the Habdalah candle burns until consumed you will get good sons-in-law (ib. p. 81). Where spirits are used instead of wine, as in Kiev, it is customary to pour what remains after the Habdalah is completed into a metal pan, and set it afire with the Habdalah light. If it burns completely away good luck will result. As it burns, some dip their fingers into the flame and convey their fingers to their pockets, in order to gain a "full week."