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Reflections on Ushering in and Bidding Farewell to Shabbat

May 2010

In my home, as in many Jewish homes around the world, Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approaches, tends to be hectic. I call a five-minute warning upstairs to my girls who are putting the final touches on their Shabbat finery and remind my boys to turn off the computer and start setting the Shabbat table. My husband Kuti sets the clock timers which will turn the lights and our electric heating plate off and on at the right times over the next 25 hours and places our family’s collection of cell phones on a high shelf. I make sure all the delicacies we prepared are ready, while I fix Elitzur’s attempt at buttoning his white shirt, the traditional uniform for boys on Shabbat. And then it’s time. Time to bring in the Shabbat. The liturgy of Jewish prayer is rich and fascinating, and some of the most beautiful prayers are those composed particularly for the day of Shabbat. But none are as meaningful to me as those which, through spiritual contemplation, usher in this holiest of days, the prayers that guide us lovingly from the mundane to the spectacular, from the secular to the divine.

By lighting the Shabbat candles, we are meant to bring harmony, joy and tranquility into the home, reminding us of the spiritual elements of Shabbat. Think about it. Just like a candle illuminates a dark room, the Shabbat candles can help illuminate the recesses of our souls, allowing us to explore new dimensions… the intangible energies of our existence.

The commandment of lighting Shabbat candles rests upon the household, but it is the woman of the house, in her role as the mainstay of the home, who does the actual lighting. The wife, the mother, usually has more influence over the spirit of the home. Women have a naturally spiritual nature which qualifies them to be the ones responsible for bringing the peace and sanctity of Shabbat into our homes. When I am away for Shabbat, visiting friends, traveling abroad, or recuperating in the hospital after having a baby, I still light candles where I am. And then someone else has to light candles in our house to make sure the light still fills our home.

Tradition suggests that at least two candles be lit, representing the first words of the commandment concerning Shabbat… “Keep” and “Remember” from two separate passages in the Torah. (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:12) In our home we light a candle for every member of our family. Our silver Shabbat candlesticks are taken out every Friday and set on top of our piano. I remember choosing two of those candlesticks with Kuti when we were engaged and how my mother would buy us a new candlestick after each of our children was born. And then I strike the match and light the nine candles. One for my husband, one for me, four for my daughters and three for my sons. Nine beautiful flames representing the nine beautiful souls of our family. And then I wave my hands around the candles, drawing the warmth and light inside me, welcoming the Shabbat Queen, and cover my eyes say the blessing:

“Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.”

This time is especially auspicious for private prayer. Throughout history, all over the world, women, from behind their covered eyes, have whispered prayers for their families and the people of Israel. It’s a time all Jewish mothers turn to G-d, beseeching Him to fill their homes with the light of His word and His love. It’s a time all Jewish mothers take a moment to express their deepest hopes for every member of their family. I pray for the proper spouses for my daughters, the right job for my husband, good health for our aging parents. And then I recite this beautiful composed prayer for the well-being of her family:

“May it be Your will, my G-d and G-d of my forefathers, that You show favor to me, my husband, my sons, my daughters, my father, my mother and all of my relatives; and that You grant us and all Israel a good life; that You remember us with beneficent memory and blessing; that You consider us with a consideration of salvation and compassion; that You bless us with great blessings, that You make our households complete; that You cause Your presence to dwell among us. Privilege me to raise children and grandchildren who are wise and understanding, who will love and fear G-d, people of truth, holy offspring attached to G-d who will illuminate the world with Torah and good deeds and with every labor in the service of the Creator. Please hear my supplication at this time in the merit of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, our mothers, and cause our light to illuminate that it be not extinguished forever, and let our countenance shine so that we are saved. Amen.”

Self explanatory. So simply put, so straight-from-the-heart, it could be the words I would come up with on my own! And yet, so not selfish. Yes, we are asking for the health and happiness of our families, but for the sake of the higher purpose of serving our G-d! We are not asking for riches or for fame. We are begging for the chance to raise children who will continue the glorious traditions of our people, for grandchildren who will study and keep and love G-d’s word, while illuminating His world with Torah.

I open my eyes and gaze at the Shabbat candles, then turn to my loved ones and wish them a “Shabbat Shalom”, hoping the light generated by the flames, the peaceful glow, will envelop and embrace my home.

And it does. The candles are still lit as my family goes off to synagogue and I sit reading on the couch, conscious of the flickering flames out of the corner of my eyes. And the candles are still lit throughout our Shabbat meal, gracing the feast with holiness, throughout the Sanctification over the wine, the partaking of the specially prepared dishes and our discussions on the Bible portion.

Shabbat is an extraordinary day and sometimes I find myself appreciating it even more, as it draws to a close and I feel the burden of the week, almost a physical weight, settling on our shoulders: The calls we are awaiting from Kuti’s interviews the week before, the tests in school my kids were studying for and dreading, or even, simply, the laundry and dishes piling up mercilessly, which have waited patiently for the past 25 hours. I sit outside on our front porch, watching the sky, as dusk turns to darkness, and wish I could hold onto Shabbat for just a little bit longer. And then, three stars are visible in the heavens, and it is time to say good-bye.

After a night and day of divine rest, we are taking leave of Shabbat. There is a remarkable prayer which marks the end of Shabbat. The service is aptly named “Havdalah, “The Separation Ceremony”, because that is exactly what it does. Just as the Shabbat candle lighting draws us out of our weekday into the spirituality of our Shabbat, the Separation Ceremony separates us from the Shabbat, marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and bringing us back into the worldly week.

The Shabbat is often compared to a queen who graces our homes each week. When she departs, we escort her back to the heavens with the Separation Ceremony prayer service, which consists of some very special props. Kuti goes to our back yard and pinches off a few sprigs from our myrtle tree. He then gets our beautifully braided candle and a bottle of wine and his goblet. We all gather around, the mood bittersweet at feeling what is slipping away.

Kuti fills the goblet with wine, purposely allowing some of the red liquid to pour over the top, symbolizing our wishes for a week of bounty, overflowing with blessing. We light the candle and Elitzur holds it up high, causing his eyes and those looking at him, to glow sweetly. And then Kuti begins the prayer, consisting of nine joyful Biblical verses, which set a hopeful tone for the upcoming week:

“Indeed, God is my deliverance; I am confident and shall not fear, for G-d the Lord is my strength and song, and He has been a help to me. You shall draw water with joy from the wellsprings of deliverance. Deliverance is the Lord’s; may Your blessing be upon Your people forever. The Lord of G-d is our everlasting stronghold. Oh, Lord our G-d, happy is the man who trusts in You. Lord deliver us; may the King answer us on the day we call.”

Then all of us chant, “For the Jews there was light and joy, gladness and honor—so let it be with us. I will raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the Name of the Lord.”

Then Kuti makes the blessing over the wine and the blessing for the smelling of spices and fragrant leaves. He breaks off pieces of the myrtle sprigs and passes them around for everyone to sniff, inhaling the heady scent. Many families have a special decorative spice box for the ceremony, filled with anything from cinnamon sticks to aromatic cloves, which get passed around. The sweet fragrance is meant to lift our spirits and perfume our upcoming week with sweetness, rejuvenating our souls at the loss of our beloved Shabbat.

Next, comes the blessing, “Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who creates the lights of the fire.” The braided candle is raised even higher for everyone to view, and we lift our fingers, looking at the reflection of candlelight and shadows dancing on our hands. And we pray that the hopes and faith we share will braid us together like the interwoven strands of the candle, into a single united purpose. The candle has more than one wick, at least two flames, stemming from the plural form “lights” used in the blessing, “Who creates the lights of the fire”. Tradition states that fire was first discovered by Adam and Eve at the end of the first Shabbat, to replace the supernatural divine light that illuminated the world during the first week of Creation.

At the end of the prayer, is a blessing of praise for G-d, who separates the holy from the everyday:

“Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, Lord, who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular.”

And isn’t this series of contrasts really what the nation of Israel is all about? Being G-d’s chosen people and trying to live our lives as worthy of this choice?

The Separation Ceremony is a multi-sensory ritual employing our faculties of speech and hearing, sight, smell and taste to define the boundaries that G-d set in creation “between the sacred and the secular.” We taste the wine, smell the spices, see the flame of the candle and feel its heat, and hear the blessings. This is not an unusual sentiment… the idea of offering up our whole being in the service of G-d.

And then Kuti sips from the wine and pours a few drops of the liquid into the plate under the goblet. He extinguishes the candle in the wine and then dips his fingers into the wine, dabbing his eyebrows, temples and pockets, to represent our desire for enlightenment, wisdom and prosperity.

This whole separation ritual seems to be a paradox. This act of separation is what connects Shabbat with the rest of the week. When the boundaries between the holy and the ordinary are blurred, the holy is no longer holy and the ordinary is left with nothing to uplift it. I once read, though, that the actual defining of the separation is what establishes the relationship between the two– a relationship in which Shabbat conveys its vision to the rest of the week, and the six days of daily life are absorbed within the sanctity of Shabbat.

The poignant hours following the Shabbat Queen’s departure are to be savored… I try to hold the mood, relishing the trail of tranquility she leaves in her path as I slowly reenter my daily life. Shavua Tov. Have a good week.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities