Tishrei was a whirlwind of holidays. With the exhaustion of so many holidays, there is also great joy and lots of opportunities to create memories. Once we begin the month of Cheshvan, there can be a lull in rituals, holiday meals, and gatherings. The richness of the holidays goes from all to nothing. Cheshvan, often called Marcheshvan — mar means bitter — likely gets its name from the absence of holidays following the full holiday season in Tishrei. It can be challenging to find new opportunities to create meaningful Jewish experiences as individuals and as parents.
As the fall season has ushered in decreasing hours of daylight, Shabbat ends earlier. Once we change the clocks we will have a new opportunity for celebrating Havdalah together. Havdalah means separation in Hebrew. It is a time when we mark the conclusion to the sacred time of Shabbat and transition or separate that time with a beautiful Havdalah ceremony, signifying the beginning of the new week. The Havdalah ceremony includes wine, spices, fire, singing, and wishing everyone a shavuah tov — a good week.
While technically Havdalah can be recognized until Tuesday evening, there is a special anticipation for the ritual as the day ends and we transition from Shabbat into the rest of the week. What is unique about this time of year is that with the changing of the clocks, Havdalah is now likely before children’s bedtimes. We change our clocks on November 3 this year. When I was a camper and staff member at Camp Ramah in the Poconos we created our own clock change to accommodate reciting Havdalah before bedtime.
What makes this ritual special for children? Our rabbis valued children’s participation in it. Havdalah used to be recited as part of the Maariv Amidah. It ultimately was transferred to a cup of wine (or grape juice); one reason the Jerusalem Talmud cites is that this was “for the benefit of the children” (Berachot 5:2, 9b). According to the Talmud Yerushalmi’s position, there is great value in having an additional service for Havdalah and celebrating it with our children.
Transitions and change are incredibly difficult for many of us. Children especially struggle with change between different activities and new schools, as well as during major life changes. Havdalah acknowledges an important truth, that separation and transitions can be daunting but we have a way to ritualize them, mark the coming week in a beautiful way, and maintain a sense of order.
We create a boundary between Shabbat and the rest of the week that feels safe and joyful. We engage our physical senses by focusing on the fire through our fingers, smelling the sweet spices, and tasting the grape juice or wine. The blessings and melodies help us to seek out God in this liminal ritual, which marks time that otherwise might go unnoticed. Havdalah models one way in which we face transitions with pause, gratitude, and ritual. The physicality of it makes it accessible to children, and its deep spiritual significance can be grounding for all of us.
Right around the time our second child came into our lives, we noticed what a huge transition it was for all of us, and especially for our firstborn child. We decided to introduce a new bedtime ritual, where we sing a version of the Shema while cuddling together. We anticipated that this would help to bring some normalcy back to our older child’s routines. More unexpected for my husband and me was how it helped us to find some sort of routine when we were sleep-deprived with our baby’s needs and our constantly changing schedule.
No matter how tired we all were, what meltdowns happened during the day, or how much laundry awaited us, the bedtime ritual grounded us during those early days and continues to provide us with a beautiful end of the day. Rituals are so powerful that way.
As an adult and as a pulpit rabbi, there are times when along with my community I have experienced many deaths in succession, which has been devastating. I have found that the Havdalah ceremony helps to ground me in ritual, and in seeking out God during times of great sadness. When the separation between light and darkness is not always straightforward, the dimmed lights and candlelight remind us that the lines sometimes are blurry. We can be sad or feel lost and still hold onto the light, as we recognize the sweetness of the spices even if we struggle to find sweetness in that moment, and mark the transition with a glass of wine and the prayer that it will be a good, healthy, and productive week.
Havdalah recognizes that movement is not always easy. Leaving the protective, joy-filled experience of Shabbat and family and friends may give way to what we call in our home the “Sunday blues.” Re-entering the looming work week or other daily routines can be a letdown. Life is full of transitions and changes. Even the happiest of transitions can be difficult to navigate. By participating or introducing Havdalah in your home, you are modeling one way we approach transitions to help ease ourselves into them. With the conclusion of the shofar blasts, the white-filled Yom Kippur elegance, the festive celebration of the Sukkah and dancing with our Torahs, Havdalah can be another way to create a weekly meaningful Jewish experience in your home.
Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.