I’ve always been a big believer in the family Shabbat experience. In our family, we light Shabbat candles together every Friday night in our dining room — a room our boys so rarely use that they actually call it the “Shabbat room,” since that’s what we do there. We sing “Shabbat Shalom” and give high fives and kisses to everyone.
Then my husband and I bless our boys, praying that they be like Ephraim and Menasseh, according to the traditional blessings. We also bless them that they be like themselves, and we praise them for specific things they did that week to be their best selves.
Following those blessings, and before we bless and partake of the wine and grape juice and (usually) homemade challah, we erupt into song and dance, our favorite being “L’cha Dodi.”
In my mind, beginning Shabbat at our home sets a strong foundation for our children’s Jewish identity and creates a meaningful experience for us all.
Unfortunately, when Shabbat ends on Saturday night after 7, my children’s bedtime, we cannot share as a family in the ritual of Havdallah, the ceremony that officially ends Shabbat, because it’s just too late to keep our exhausted children awake. But in the fall and winter months, when Shabbat ends as early as 5 p.m., we join together again in the Shabbat room for Havdallah.
Initially I figured I would need to take charge and lead this simple, yet full-of-new-Hebrew-words ritual. And I did. But within one or two weeks, to my great surprise and delight, our children (ages 4 and 6) picked up on the tune, the words and even the songs that follow the traditional ritual.
Now our Saturday afternoon ends with a race between our boys to see who holds the candle and who is in charge of the spice box. Now our younger son with special needs sings the Havdallah tune with pride. Now his older brother is trying to get the skill (and courage!) to dunk the candle into the grape juice at the end of the ritual. Now both boys are learning Hebrew prayers and songs, and they both love to sing “Eliyahu Hanavi” all week. Now our children have two moments each week where we gather as a family in a special place and hold each other close. Now we have more opportunities as parents to educate our children about values such as being grateful for our blessings, appreciating each other and sharing.
There’s something about darkness, fire and being together for a brief but intimate moment that solidifies our experience of family and helps shape an even more meaningful connection to Judaism. We now hear the Havdallah tune chanted daily, especially by our younger son with Fragile X syndrome, who loves to pray.
Havdallah has helped our children appreciate Shabbat. They understand more about how Shabbat begins and ends, and that the restrictions we try to observe on Shabbat (no TV or electronics) have a finite time period. They have come to cherish the special family time that Shabbat implies: longer family meals together, playing games, reading and visiting with friends.
I know that for families that do not celebrate Shabbat in a traditional way, Havdallah may seem awkward or irrelevant. But I think that especially those who struggle to find the time or opportunity to begin Shabbat on Friday, Havdallah may be just the right ritual to introduce into your busy family life. It is brief, yet there’s great power in what we experience through the senses (smelling the spices, looking at the candle and the shadows it creates, tasting the wine, hearing the tunes). Not only that, but while Shabbat starts at a specific time, you can experience Havdallah anytime from when Shabbat ends all the way until Tuesday! So there’s a great opportunity to make it work.
The message of Havdallah is one of Jewish continuity: Shabbat will come again and our family will be together again. We go into the new week already looking forward to the beauty of the next Shabbat. It’s incredible how Havdallah can “spice up” a family’s experience of Shabbat — and of each other. In fact, when the clocks change and Havdallah is once again too late for my children to stay up on a Saturday night, we will probably introduce it into our Sunday evening activities. What a great way to start the week!
Rabbi Ilana Garber is the associate rabbi at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Conn.