Hamavdil—The Holy One and Separation

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jan 8, 2013 / 5773 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

We tend to think that the role of religion is to affirm and support an increasing sense of unity in the world. There is much to support such a view. At the end of ‘aleinu (a prayer at the end of every Jewish service), we quote Zechariah 14:9, affirming “ . . . on that day, Adonai will be One and God’s Name will be One.” The text is enigmatic, but certainly speaks of a vision of great unity. Many other texts, in prayers and elsewhere, speak similarly of a quest and vision for this unity. Scholars of mysticism speak of the unio mystica, the experience of unification that is often associated with testimonies of enlightenment.

It is interesting, perhaps even paradoxical, that in the ritual of havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat, we recite a blessing that praises God as hamavdil, the One who creates separation or division. In fact, our sources and prayers have a more nuanced and profound approach to the balance between unity and separations or diversity. Immediately after creating light and seeing that it is good, God “divides the light from darkness” (Gen. 1:4), a divine act recalled in the havdalah blessing that praises God, “who divides between holy and ordinary, between light and darkness.”

It could well be that on Shabbat we seek unity to the greatest extent possible. At the end of Shabbat, however, we recognize that, for the coming six days, the world in which we go about the business and work of our lives is based upon distinctions and categories. This idea is affirmed in one more prayer text. The first of the weekday blessings (the middle 13 blessings of the ‘Amidah, recited on weekdays but not on Shabbat) praise God for bestowing knowledge upon humanity “umelamed le’enosh binah ( instructing humanity about insight). The word binah, translated as “insight,” is derived from the word beyn, which means “between” in the text of havdalah: God divides “beyn holy and ordinary, beyn light and darkness.” Much human wisdom and technology is based upon distinctions and categories; advanced work may well be about manipulations and combinations, but only when there are clear definitions and distinctions that define an arena of concern.

Throughout the holy day of Shabbat, we aspire to a world and reality that might transcend differences and distinctions; at the end of the day, perhaps tinged with poignancy and regret, our liturgy guides us back into the variegated and multifaceted universe for another week.

The formal blessings of havdalah are often followed by “Hamavdil beyn kodesh lehol,”a song that weaves images of God around this theme of distinctions. The melodies are often haunting and poignant.