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Parshas Vayikra (Hachodesh) [5772]

Havdalah and the Four Cups of Wine

By Rabbi David Zauderer

[Disclaimer: What you are about to read is not “politically correct”. If you are one of those people who believe that Men are from Mars and Women are also from Mars, and that all human beings are not just ‘equal’ but the same, then maybe this essay is not for you.]

The festival of Passover is fast upon us … so I would therefore like to discuss the ritual of … Havdalah. (Don’t worry, the connection will soon become very obvious.)

As we all know, Havdalah (a Hebrew word meaning ‘separation’) is a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the end of Shabbos and holidays, and ushers in the new week. The ritual involves four parts: (1) making a blessing over wine (2) making a blessing over besamim (sweet-smelling spices) (3) making a blessing over a lit candle (4) reciting the Havdalah prayer (which highlights the separation between the holy and the secular).

The Rashbatz (a 15th century Torah sage) explains the four parts of Havdalah as follows: The essence and purpose of this ritual is for a Jew to enter into the new week with the ability to make havdalah, i.e. to separate and discern one thing from another. This is because, as the Talmud Yerushalmi in Berachos (5:2) tells us, “Im ein dei-ah, havdalah mi-nayin? – If there is no understanding, how can one differentiate [between holy and profane and between other things]”

In other words, to distinguish between things is a function of intelligent reasoning, and in order for a person to properly understand himself and the world around him, and to be spiritually successful over the coming week, he must be able to make distinctions and to realize that everyone and everything is not the same.

Therefore, at the intersection between the holy Shabbos and the mundane work week, a Jew ‘trains’ himself through a progression of the four parts of the Havdalah ritual, to be conscious of the sharp distinction between sanctity and secularity, as well as other distinctions he needs to make in life.

First, he makes a blessing over wine, symbolizing the ability to discern one thing from another with the sense of taste. Next, he makes a blessing on the besamim, representing the sense of smell, which gives one the ability to distinguish between things at a greater distance than through tasting. After that, he makes a blessing upon seeing the lit candle, using the sense of sight, through which one can discern at an even greater distance than through smell. Finally, he recites the Havdalah prayer, in which he uses his most elevated ‘sense’, his seichel (intellect) and understanding, to differentiate between Shabbos and the work week, between the Jewish people and the nations of the world, etc.

According to the Torah’s worldview, it emerges that not every time period, person or ideology is the same, but, in fact, there are critical differences between Shabbos and the rest of the week, between men and women, between Jew and non-Jew, etc. – and the Havdalah ritual is there each week to remind us of this fact.

[See, I told you this would not be politically correct! But wait, it gets worse …]

Truth be told, Havdalah and the Four Cups of Wine we drink on Passover have a lot in common.

You see, everyone drinks the Four Cups of Wine at the Passover Seder. But does everyone know why we drink them? The Talmud Yerushalmi in Pesachim explains that the Four Cups correspond to the four expressions of redemption that G-d used when He promised to deliver our ancestors from their bondage in Egypt. G-d instructed Moses, "Say to the Children of Israel: I am G-d, and I shall take you out from the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people ..." (see Exodus 6:6-7).

The Bible commentators explain that the Four Cups that we drink are actually a progression of four levels which we re-live each year at the Seder, taking us from the point when we were enslaved and tortured in Egypt to the point where G-d took us to Him as His people.

The first expression, I shall take you out, was fulfilled when G-d removed the Jews from the burdens of slavery even before they were permitted to leave the country. The second expression, I shall rescue you, was when the Jews actually left Egypt. The third expression, I shall redeem you, refers to the Splitting of the Sea, in which the Jews were able to see their tormentors punished, and to no longer live in fear. The fourth and final expression, I shall take you, was when G-d took the Jews as His people and gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.

What this really means is that, much like the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbos, the Four Cups of Wine that we drink throughout the long Passover Seder are supposed to bring us to a realization that we Jews are not the same as everyone else, but actually quite different - because G-d redeemed us from the Egyptian bondage and took us to Him as His people and gave us His Torah with a special and unique mission for us to fulfill to be a light unto the nations.

This helps to explain why Jews have been singing “Next Year in Jerusalem” for almost 2000 years at the end of the Seder. It’s not that we don’t like living in Canada or the US or Switzerland, and are just dying to leave as soon as we can.

Rather, it is because after sitting through the whole Seder and drinking the Four Cups we gain a certain clarity that we Jews are different and that our true home and future isn’t here in the Diaspora but in Israel and Jerusalem where we belong.

It is my fervent hope and prayer that this year should be the last year that we celebrate Passover in the Diaspora, and that next year we shall truly be in Jerusalem with the coming of the Moshiach. Amen.

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