Parshat Shemini – פרשת שמיני
April 14, 2018 – כט ניסן תשעח
Scripture sets forth guidelines for determining the suitability for consumption of various animals, birds, insects, and fish. The chapter concludes “These are the instructions… for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten (Leviticus 11:47).” The Torah continues with the law of the parturient, specifically the new mother who has recently given birth to a boy (12:2). Noting the juxtaposition of the requirement to make religiously oriented distinctions and the birth of male children, Rabbi Yochanan posited that those who are careful to perform weekly the Havdalah ceremony – which distinguishes between sacred and profane time – over a cup of wine will merit having male offspring (Shevuot 18a).
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi similarly noted a juxtaposition of verses. God spoke to Aaron concerning the special requirements of the priesthood. “For you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean. And you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses (Leviticus 10:10-11).” RJBL posited that those who scrupulously perform the Havdalah ceremony over wine will merit having sons who become teachers of halakhah. [Rabbi Yochanan and RJBL also related their respective interpretations to those who abstain from marital intercourse at the expected onset of menses, since such people are extra careful to distinguish between clean and unclean and between permitted and forbidden opportunities for cohabitation.]
In antiquity (and in some cultures even today), there was a strong preference for sons rather than daughters. Rabbinic literature abounds with suggestions of meritorious behavior that may result in the blessing of male offspring. One should exhibit holiness during intimacy (Shevuot 18a), disperse one’s assets to the needy, placate one’s wife before intimacy (Bava Bathra 10b), and marry a suitable woman (Niddah 70b).
The fact that the homilists exhorted their listeners to perform the weekly Havdalah rite by vouchsafing them a much-desired reward is a possible indication that the ritual was not scrupulously observed by some elements within Jewry. The later homilists went even further in their hyperbole about Havdalah. Rabbi Isaac said that whoever is negligent concerning Havdalah will never see blessing in his life, whereas those who fulfill the weekly mitzvah are considered by God to be holy ones and are spared from trouble caused by heathens (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 20). The suspicion that popular observance of Havdalah needed to be strengthened is further supported by the repeated Talmudic discussions about what to do if one failed to recite Havdalah on Saturday night. In less than optimal circumstances, the sons of Rabbi Hiyya allowed a person to recite Havdalah at any point in the week. Rabbi Zeira permitted its recitation until Wednesday (Pesahim 106a); Rabbi Yannai, until Thursday (Yerushalmi Berakhot 9c).
The historical development of Havdalah, from its origins through the Talmudic period, can help explain the fluctuating popularity of the ritual.
According to some medieval authorities, Havdalah is a Biblical commandment. An alternative recension of Pesahim 106a (not found in the standard Vilna Shas) offers an exegetical interpretation of “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy (Exodus 20:8)” mandating the recitation of Kiddush and Havdalah at the onset, and at the conclusion, of the Sabbath, respectively (Sefer Ha-Makhria 71). The consensus view, however, is that the requirement to recite Havdalah was put into place by the Men of the Great Assembly, who functioned during the early Second Temple period (Berakhot 33a). Rashi (and by implication, Maimonides, too) credited Ezra with promulgating that requirement.
Shall we accept the historicity of these assertions? Rabbinic literature is replete with fanciful and patently ahistorical claims that Jewish liturgical obligations date back to deep antiquity. For example, it is claimed that the forefathers established the three daily prayer services (Berakhot 26b), or that Moses did so (Tanhuma Ki Tavo 1).
For Havdalah, though, we can accept a fairly early date for its enactment. The Houses of Shammai and Hillel, functioning in final decades of the Second Temple era, disagreed about the proper sequence for performing the constituent elements of Havdalah (Mishnah Berakhot 8:5). Their minor disagreement aside, it is clear that in the first century CE, if not earlier, Pharisaic Judaism had a ceremony marking the conclusion of the Sabbath that included wine, flame, spices, and a blessing distinguishing between the sacred and the profane. The content of that blessing evolved over time and fluctuated in its length. Some people only distinguished three categories of sacred and profane; others mentioned as many as seven. Rav reported that Rabbi Judah the Patriarch used an extremely terse benediction mentioning only one such distinction (Pesahim 103b). In its most expansive recension, the blessing included a reference to the distinction in relative levels of holiness of Aaronids, Levites, and Israelites (104a). In the post-Temple era, the elevated status of the priestly class was largely eliminated from public consciousness and from the liturgy; that is a further indication that the text in question dates from an earlier time.
Post-Mishnaic sages were faced with an interesting question. Why is Havdalah said twice, once during the Saturday evening prayer service and again over a cup of wine in a home-based ceremony? Rabbi Yochanan posited a series of historical changes to the enactment based upon evolving socioeconomic conditions. The original obligation was to recite Havdalah during the Saturday night Amidah. Later, when Jewry became more prosperous, it was enacted that Havdalah must be recited over a cup of wine. Even later, when economic conditions worsened, it was enacted that Havdalah may be properly fulfilled during the Amidah, but that, if it is feasible, one should also perform the rite over a cup of wine (Berakhot 33a). Although Rabbi Yochanan lived in the Land of Israel, this tale of an evolving ritual is found only in the Babylonian Talmud and specifically reflects the material reality of Babylonia. In Eretz Yisrael, where grapes are heavily cultivated, wine was readily available and affordable. In Babylonia, the grape vine was not ubiquitous and wine was scarce and expensive. This accounts for the Bavli’s extensive discussion of the permissibility of using beer or other provincially popular beverages in lieu of wine for Havdalah (Pesahim 107a).
Rabbi Yochanan’s historical claims were in response to a student who incredulously wondered how it could be that the Tannaim disagreed regarding where in the Amidah the Havdalah interpolation should be made. The Tanna Kamma ruled that Havdalah is to be inserted into the blessing of understanding, the fourth blessing of the Amidah and the first of the middle petitionary blessings. Rabbi Akiba ruled that Havdalah is its own independent fourth blessing. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that Havdalah is recited toward the end of the Amidah, in the blessing of thanksgiving (Mishnah Berakhot 5:2). If, as was assumed, Havdalah had been a well-established Judaic practice long preceding the Tannaim, there should have been consensus on this issue (see also Yerushalmi Berakhot 9b). Yochanan’s answer conveniently claims that while the Havdalah in the Amidah is an ancient practice, there was a gap in its observance during periods of prosperity, thereby sowing confusion about the parameters of the original enactment.
There is reason to doubt or reject Rabbi Yochanan’s reconstruction of liturgical history. Firstly, the evening service was instituted much later than the morning and afternoon services. As late as the Tannaitic period there was a fierce debate about whether the evening service was obligatory or optional (Berakhot 27b). There is reason to believe that in the early Mishnaic period there was no communal Saturdayevening prayer. Further, all the early references to Havdalah discuss the ritual performed over a cup of wine.
Ismar Elbogen, in his comprehensive history of Jewish liturgy, suggested that Havdalah began as part of fraternal meals eaten to mark the conclusion of the Sabbath. His strongest piece of evidence is that, in the dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai, grace after meals is a constituent element of the broader Havdalah ceremony. Also, the inclusion of a blessing over spices is consistent with the practice of bringing incense to the table at the conclusion of a communal meal and having the person who led the grace make a blessing over the aromatic coals (Mishnah Berakhot 6:6).
Shmuel Safrai dismissed Elbogen’s theory. The Tosefta makes clear that grace after meals was part of the Havdalah service only in the unusual situation where the householder had only one cup of wine remaining and wished to recite both Birkat Ha-Mazon and Havdalah over a cup of wine (Tosefta Berakhot 5:30). Moreover, the halakhah as codified forbids the consumption of food after dark on Saturday night prior to the recitation of Havdalah (Pesahim 107a). Safrai, instead, advances the following theory: Originally, Havdalah was recited at home over a cup of wine. When the evening service became an accepted part of Jewish religious life in the early post-Temple period, it naturally followed that a reference to the conclusion of the Sabbath would be inserted in the Saturday night prayers. Because this was a new practice, there was ambiguity about where in the Amidah the interpolation ought to be made.
After several generations of pious Jews had recited Havdalah both in the prayer service and at home, some began to question the need for those two recitations. Logically, one ought to have been enough. Worse yet, the second of the two recitations could arguably be considered an extraneous (and therefore unlawful) blessing, the dreaded ברכה שאינה צריכה.
Three Amoraic viewpoints developed: 1) Havdalah over a cup of wine is primary. 2) Havdalah in the Amidah is primary. 3) Both recitations are equally important. In the late 3rd century CE, the halakhah was firmly established in accordance with the consensus opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbah, and Rav Yosef: Irrespective of which Havdalah originated first or had theoretical primacy, both must be recited.
According to the view that the Havdalah in the Amidah is the primary means by which to satisfy the ritual requirement, the home-based Havdalah over a cup of wine was enacted so as to provide merit to one’s children and household dependents (Yerushalmi Berakhot 9b). Rabbi Judah the Patriarch would recite the blessing of Hamavdil immediately upon the departure of the Sabbath and would recite blessings over a flame and spices as the opportunities presented themselves. Yet he would later repeat all the blessings in a full Havdalah ceremony recited at home for the benefit of his family members (3d). Midrashic and later halakhic literature emphasize the ability of dependents to fulfill their Havdalah obligation merely by hearing another’s recitation.
For those who consistently observe liturgical obligations, the theological imperative to distinguish between the sacred and the profane is a readily absorbed lesson of the prayer book. Yet for those who do not attend the synagogue frequently and do not have a firm grasp of the wisdom of the Siddur, the need to separate between holy and mundane can easily be overlooked. Upon leaving the synagogue after Shabbat, the religiously committed and liturgically competent Jew should go home and spread the message of Havdalah to a wider Jewish audience.
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