Havdalah’s Fire and Fingernails


One of the most moving weekly rituals is the Havdalah (“separation”) ceremony, when we intone a sweet-sad melody to the words,  “Behold, the Lord of my salvation in Whom I trust and thus I do not fear,” as we bid a sorrowful farewell to Shabbat with wine, spice and fire. Perhaps our feelings as we go through this act of “separation” (dividing Shabbat from the rest of the week) require the wine and the fragrances of the spice to refresh and reinvigorate our spirits at the leave-taking of the Sabbath Queen.

As we intone the blessing over the fire — recalling the teaching of our Sages that fire was discovered by Adam on that first, primordial Saturday night — we customarily look at our fingernails. Why our fingernails?

The early commentator Rabbi Menachem Meiri (citing the Gaonim) suggests that when Adam was first created, his entire body was covered with the same strong substance of the fingernails as a protective coat. Subsequently, when the forbidden fruit was eaten, this protective coat was removed — with only the fingernails serving as a reminder. Since we are about to welcome Elijah, herald of Redemption, at the end of the Havdalah ceremony, we are in effect requesting a return to Eden.

Our Biblical portion of Shemini opens, “And it happened on the eighth day.” Rashi comments, this was “the eighth day of the consecration ceremonies of the Sanctuary, the first day of the month of Nissan, the very day on which the Sanctuary was erected.” And it was on this very same eighth day — in the midst of the celebration following the descent of a Divinely-sent fire which consumed the offering on the altar as a sign of heavenly acceptance — that Nadav and Avihu were also consumed by a Divine fire! What occasioned such wrath, and what is the significance of the eighth day?

Let us return to the initial seven days of Creation. On the sixth day He created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden. The first couple sinned by plucking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and eating it, severing good and evil from their Divine source, thereby reducing morality to a subjective experience. From that moment, good and evil were no longer rooted in a Divine objective morality but became whatever the human being believed was good or evil for him/her. That is why our mystical literature refers to Adam’s sin as his having “severed the plantings” (kitzetz banetiyot), removing the seed from its source. And so, Adam and Eve were banished from Eden.

Then came the first Sabbath Day, the time when everyone could find refuge and comfort under the wings of the Divine Presence, the day when the Almighty especially extends His ‘arms’ to embrace the penitent. Indeed, the Midrash [Bereishit Rabbah] teaches us that Adam recited the Psalm for Shabbat for the first time, genuinely uplifted by the understanding that there truly existed a road back to Eden, paved with stones of repentance and repair.

And then came the first Saturday night, the beginning of the first eighth day. “This was the first time that darkness began to descend upon the world. … And the Almighty prepared two flint stones for Adam; Adam rubbed them together and there emerged fire” [Bereishit Rabbah 11:2].  Hence the first ‘eighth’ day is parallel to the very first day when God created light (ohr) for the world; on the eighth day Adam created light and warmth (eish) for the world.

But it goes much deeper than that. On the seven days of creation, God created a world for humans to live in; on the eighth day Adam discovered — through fire — how he could repair and improve that world. If on the primordial seven days of Creation, God made a world for humanity, on the eighth day with the consecration of the Sanctuary, the Israelites made a Sacred Space — an improved world —I n miniature, in which God could dwell with humanity: “They shall make for a Sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst” [Exodus Trumah].

Fire is the human response to God’s light. But fire is a double-edged sword; it can strengthen and purify, or it can subvert and petrify; it can bring light and warmth, or it can bring destruction. The blessing over fire, which attributes fire to its ultimate Divine source, must remind us that we must serve God in accordance with His Divine laws, that we dare not remove our creativity from its Divine direction. To do so would be a repetition of Adam’s original sin.

God sent down His Divine light and fire as a sign that He accepted our Sanctuary, the work of human hands, according to God’s architectural directions. Then Nadav and Avihu came along with “a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to bring [Lev. 10:1]).”

Yes, we must use our creativity to perfect ourselves and our world—but only in accordance with His will, in accordance with the limits He has placed on Divine Service, so that we never fall into the trap of  bringing the strange fires of Moloch [Deuteronomy 18:10] and the immoral wars of Jihad (like Moloch, involving the sacrifice of children). Human hands created fire — but human hands must use that fire to recreate and not to destroy.

Therefore, we look at our fingers as we make the blessing over fire every Saturday night, the beginning of our weekly “eighth day.” We are telling ourselves that everything — the future of our lives and our world — lies in our own hands.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Candles: 7:19 p.m. (Fri);
7:16 p.m. (Tue.); 8:17 p.m. (Wed.)

Torah: Lev. 9:1-11:47

Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1-19

Havdalah: 8:21 p.m.