In dark times...

On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of light – which can feel challenging when we are surrounded by so much darkness, both physically (short winter days) and spiritually by the increase of hate and oppression around the world. It’s especially challenging because the light that we each bring is so often separated from one another. Our souls are isolated, so our lights are too. Chanukah teaches us how to overcome that separation by adding light to light.

We each have our own list of the various sources of darkness in our lives, and there are many. Hate crimes are on the rise, bigotry and racism have become increasingly emboldened, we face the daily grind of struggling against more and more oppressive policies at every turn. How can we be real about the darkness without being pollyanna or pretending it doesn’t hurt people, while at the same time cultivating the inner resources we need to bring light?...


That's the beginning of a new piece I co-wrote with my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and with Victoria Cook of Torah Trumps Hate, with a beautiful sketchnote from Steve Silbert, published this morning in eJewish Philanthropy. It's about Chanukah, and havdalah, and our #BeALight initiative, and why in dark times it's our job to bring light.

Read the whole thing: In Dark Times, Be A Light

A ritual for the end of Pesach

34107028195_cc5fa30544_z"Is there something like havdalah for the end of Pesach?"

That question was brought to me a few days ago by my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding.

Reverend Rick has, in the past, expressed to me his "holy envy" of havdalah. (In Krister Stendahl's terms, one feels holy envy for that thing in another tradition which one wishes existed in one's own tradition.) I love that he thought to ask about whether we have a unique separation ritual for the end of Pesach... and I'm kind of sad that the answer is no.

(This is additionally complicated by the fact that as a people, we don't agree on when the end of Pesach is! Jews in the land of Israel observe seven days. Reform Jews everywhere do likewise. Conservative and Orthodox Jews outside of Israel observe eight days. To the best of my knowledge, the Reconstructionist movement doesn't set official policy on this matter. And Renewal Jews exist everywhere -- in communities of every denominational affiliation and no denominational affiliation -- so it's impossible to generalize.)

But regardless of whether the end of Pesach comes after the seventh day or the eighth day, we don't have a formal ritual unique to ending this festival. Those of us who remove leaven from our homes during the festival have probably evolved informal rituals for moving the Pesachdik dishes back into storage and the regular dishes back into rotation, or for buying or baking the first loaf of bread after the festival has come to its close. But there's no Pesach-specific form of havdalah to mark the end of festival time. 

What we do have is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. In a sense, counting the Omer blurs the boundary at the festival's end. Long after Pesach is over, we're still counting the days until the revelation of Torah at Sinai -- a journey we began at the second seder. The counting stitches the two festivals together, making the end of Pesach less stark. Passover ends, but the Omer continues as each day we turn the internal kaleidoscope to see ourselves through new lenses.

When weather permits, at this time of year, I like to sit outside on my mirpesset and watch the evening sky change. As darkness takes over the sky I make the blessing and count the new day of the Omer. Watching the sky slowly shift from one shade of blue to the next, it's clear to me that the end of a day isn't a binary. We don't go from day to night in a single moment of transition. As our prayer for oncoming evening makes clear, "evening" is a mixture of day and night, constantly shifting.

There's some of that same fuzziness in the end of Pesach. Even once we've moved the regular dishes back into the kitchen, or gone out for that first celebratory pizza after a week of matzah, the festival lingers. It lingers in the counting of the Omer. It lingers in the matzah crumbs we'll be sweeping up for weeks. It lingers in our consciousness, in our hearts and minds, in whatever in us was changed this year by re-encountering our people's core narrative of taking the leap into freedom.

Still, Reverend Rick's question continues to reverberate in me. Havdalah has four elements: wine, fragrant spices, fire, and a blessing for separation. If we were to dream a ritual to make havdalah specific to the end of Pesach, how would we re-imagine havdalah for this purpose? The one thing that's clear to me is that the ritual would need to be simple and accessible, not requiring additional preparation -- Pesach is so full of extra work that I don't think I could bear to add additional strictures or obligations or ritual items!

Blessing a glass of wine, symbol of joy, is easy. For the fragrant spices, this year, I want a scent of the outdoors -- from my mirpesset I can breathe the sharp scent of new cedar mulch -- to spark my soul's embrace of what is growing and unfolding and new. Instead of the light of a braided havdalah candle, I might hold my hands up to the ever-changing light of the sky. And as a blessing of separation, the new night's Omer count, separating and bridging between what was and what is yet to be. 


Edited to add: I realized after this post had been published that I wasn't altogether clear. Here's an addendum: 

It is traditional to make a modified form of havdalah at the end of festivals (and I should have been clearer about that -- oops.) The conversation that sparked this post wasn't about that per se, but about a Pesach-specific ritual for the end of Pesach -- and while Mimouna is a Pesach-specific custom for post-Pesach, it also doesn't exactly answer the question I raise at the end of the post, about how we might repurpose havdalah itself to incorporate scents and sights of this moment in time.

Meet you at the Well for "An Evening of Song & Spirit(s)" on 11/19

If you're in or near Detroit, meet you at the Well on November 19?

The Well is an innovative community-building, education, and spirituality outreach program geared toward the needs of young adults and those who haven't connected with other more mainstream institutions. I've wanted to visit for a while, and I'm excited to have the opportunity to do so with my ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Evan Markus and our friend and teacher Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg. 

Rabbi Dan Horwitz has graciously invited us to be part of An Evening of Song and Spirit(s) beginning at 8pm on Saturday, November 19. We'll make havdalah and weave together an evening niggunim, stories, Hasidic teachings, and poetry. It will be yummy.

Song and Spirit

If you're interested in joining us, register at Space is limited and tickets are $10/ person. Deep thanks to Rabbi Dan for inviting Rabbi David, Rabbi Elliot, and me to share teachings, songs, stories, and poetry at this havdalah event. Hope to see some of you there!

Four glimpses of the pre-Kallah Shabbat


Mincha in the mountains.


Unlike at last Kallah (when we were on a lake -- an easy natural mikvah), no formal mikvah experiences are scheduled for smicha week. But on Friday afternoon of my first week here, two friends and I decide to create our own. We make our way to the campus rec center, where there is a huge pool with a beach-like slope at one end, and a large and spacious hot tub, too. We opt first for the hot tub, and -- immersed in its foaming waters up to our necks -- we talk about what we need to release from our lives in general and from the week now ending in particular. And then we immerse. It's not a kosher mikvah, of course -- it's a swimming pool, with no source of living waters; for that matter, we're wearing swimsuits -- but on a spiritual level when I emerge from the waters after my final immersion I feel lighter. More radiant. More ready to welcome Shabbat.



As I make my way back to my dorm after the festive meal that followed Kabbalat Shabbat, I am drawn to the trio of guitarists sitting on one of the semicircles of big stones on the lawn outside the building. (So are a few dozen other people.) I settle happily on one of the big rocks that serves as a bench, and as they play and sing, the assembled group sings with them. They play (and we sing) the birkat hamazon (grace after meals), prayers, folk songs, new melodies, old melodies. In between singing harmony with my friends, I have conversations with current and prospective ALEPH students, with faculty, with other musmachim (alumni / ordinands). We sing and sing and sing. And sing some more. Between the singing and the Shabbat wine, by the time I stagger up to my room (well after midnight, which means it's well after my bedtime!) I am exhausted... but grateful.



On the campus where we're staying the grounds are pretty flat. But off to one side there are mountains, and I don't want to spend two weeks at the cusp of the Rockies and never actually see the mountains themselves! So on Shabbat afternoon two friends and I head to Horsetooth Mountain Park, and we walk up into the hills. It's a hot day, and we're at altitude; I huff and puff more than I would prefer. But the hills around us are extraordinarily beautiful. My spirits are lifted by the grasses and piñon pines and wildflowers, by the clouds scudding across the blue sky, by the sound of wind in the grasses. We sing bits of the Shabbat afternoon service to the special nusach (melodic system) used only at that time on that day. "Mincha" means offering or gift. In that moment, singing bits of the ashrei on a trail in the hills in the sunshine, everything feels like a gift.



After evening davenen we make our way outside for havdalah. We form a huge circle, arms around each other. Fragrant teabags are passed out for our b'samim, the spices we will bless to prevent ourselves from fainting as the second Shabbat soul departs. Havdalah candles are lit. We sing the words I love so very dearly: hineh El yeshuati, evtach v'lo efchad... (This is the God of my redemption; I trust, I am not afraid...) We sing the blessings sanctifying the One Who makes divisions between Shabbat and the week. When the candles are extinguished a few people sing to Elijah the prophet in Ladino, and then we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah in Hebrew, and then people start dancing as the musicians keep on playing. La-yehudim haita ora -- a prayer for light and joy and honor for us in the week now beginning. We sing, and we dance, and the week begins. 


Related: Six jewels from Clergy Camp.

I trust you: I am not afraid


You watch over my changes.
I trust you: I am not afraid.
I find strength in your song.
I become more myself.

Together we draw water in joy
from the living well.
We draw forth the changes
with which you bless me.

I'm not alone: you are with me,
no matter what name I call you.
I'm the luckiest woman in the world
because I have you.

Even when grief rends my throat
I'm not alone: you are there, and
my changes are there
waiting for me.



This poem arises out of the opening prayer of havdalah, "הִנֵּה אֵל יְשׁוּעָתִי / Hineh el yeshuati." (You can hear all of the prayers of havdalah beautifully sung here at the Havdalah page at B'nai Jeshurun -- there are also good translations and transliterations there, if that's helpful to you.) This is not a translation by any stretch -- but those who know the traditional words will hopefully hear their resonances in these lines. 

Shavua tov -- may the coming week bring blessings to all.

To Shabbes

I want to plead "don't go!"
    though I know you'll return.
        I trust the future I can't see.

My strength is in your song
    even when I'm not certain
        how to play all the chords.

When you're with me
    every channel opens,
        sweetness courses through.

My unlovely thin skin
    becomes a cloak of light.
        I breathe the air of Eden.

Return quickly, beloved!
    I'm counting the days.
        I carry you in my heart.

This is another poem in the series of poems of yearning and longing which I think will probably become part of the chapbook which currently has the working title of Texts to the Holy.

There are a lot of references here to the prayers of havdalah, the ritual which sanctifies separation between Shabbat and week -- especially to the opening prayers which precede the blessings. Also to a teaching which riffs off of the fact that the Hebrew words for "skin" and for "light" are homonyms. (Find it at the end of this post.) There's also a hint at Yedid Nefesh, which I think is one of our tradition's most beautiful songs of yearning for the Beloved.


Navigating transitions with grace - at the Wisdom Daily


...Watching my son learn to navigate transitions has given me more compassion for myself as I navigate my own emotional landscape. I have more life experience than he does, so I should be able to face transitions with less anxiety and more grace. And frequently I do. But I also struggle with beginnings and endings. I think everyone does.

One season gives way to the next. Summer vacation gives way to school. On the Jewish calendar, we've just moved from an old year into a new one. All of these transitions come bearing gifts - as well as challenges. And if that's true for annual transitions like the shift from summer to fall, how much more true it is for emotional transitions which may not follow any calendar or arise predictably....

That's a taste of my latest essay for The Wisdom Daily. Click through to read the whole thing: Can You Learn to Love Navigating Transitions?


The Days of Awe begin at the next new moon. Our journey into those awesome days intensifies tomorrow night, and we'll kick off the "high holiday season" at my shul, with the service called Selichot.  Selichot means "pardons," and is the name our tradition gives to a set of poems and prayers designed to help our hearts experience teshuvah, repentance or return (in the sense of returning-to-God or re/turning ourselves in the right direction again.) Some people say the selichot prayers every day during Elul. And a lot of congregations have a special service dedicated to Selichot, as we do.

It's customary to do this on a Shabbat evening near, but not too near, to Rosh Hashanah. Since the New Year begins next weekend on Sunday night, next Shabbat would be too close -- we wouldn't have time for the experience of the Selichot to resonate in us -- so we'll do it tomorrow night.

This may be my favorite service of the year. We begin with havdalah, which I love dearly. (And I have recently come to feel especially attached to the opening prayer, which proclaims evtach v'lo efchad, I will trust and will not be afraid.) Then we dip into some of my favorite prayers of the Days of Awe -- prayers whose words, and whose melodies, speak to me deeply. We'll sing some prayers which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to music; we'll read some poems which I hope will stimulate the part of our hearts which responds to words. And midway through the service we'll pause for a short writing exercise.

People will be invited to write down on index cards, anonymously, places where they've (we've) missed the mark in the last year. Things for which they (we) seek forgiveness as the Days of Awe approach. I'll collect those cards, and will leave the cards and pencils and a basket for collecting them out in the synagogue lobby for about ten days so those who don't make it to Selichot services can still participate. And then I'll use the words on those cards to craft a personalized Al Chet prayer for Yom Kippur morning, co-written by our community, expressing the things for which our hearts most seek forgiveness and release.

If you're local to western Massachusetts, you're welcome to join us at 8pm at Congregation Beth Israel tomorrow night. And if you would like to dip into the prayers and songs of Selichot tomorrow night by yourself, the pdf file of our service is here for you.


Selichot 5776 [pdf]

Airport havdalah

Sun slides behind the concourse.
It's still today, but the coming week
encroaches. My mind clicks through
obligations like prayer beads.

Then the chat window opens.
You type the first words of havdalah.
Behold! The God of my redemption.
I open to the week; I am not afraid...

Suddenly though among strangers
I am not alone. You are with me.
Your emoji and your texts
-- they comfort me.

As I board the plane
I catch a whiff of someone's perfume.
The seatbelt sign glows. In its light
my polished fingernails gleam.

Bless the One Who separates
and bridges. Even at a distance
we aren't really apart.
My cup overflows.


This poem was written on my second plane home from Beyond Walls. I was traveling on Saturday evening and there was no way to make havdalah in any formal sense, but this experience -- and the writing of the poem which ensued -- became my ceremony of separation between Shabbat and week.

Havdalah is celebrated with the scent of sweet spices (to revive us as the "extra soul" of Shabbat departs) and by holding up our hands to the light of the braided candle. The final havdalah blessing speaks of God Who separates; I follow a Jewish Renewal custom of adding "and Who bridges."

Sidewalk havdalah

WineThere are so many moments which stand out from me from this weekend in New York city, the first stop on the ALEPH / Jewish Renewal listening tour. Moments from our davenen at Romemu. Moments from our meals together. Moments from our amazing afternoon and evening and morning of conversations about Jewish Renewal's history, its present, and our hopes for its future.

But right now the moment which is foremost in my consciousness is the experience of making havdalah, the ritual which separates between Shabbat and week, at a little Italian restaurant a short walk from our hotel. We were sitting at a table at the liminal edge between indoors and outdoors. We had enjoyed much terrific conversation and most of a bottle of white wine. And then it came time.

I had brought a havdalah set from home, but it was in the hotel room. So we made do. David sang over his glass of pinot grigio. Shoshanna provided a vial of essential oils for our besamim, the fragrant spices which revive the soul so that the departing Shabbat doesn't break our hearts. We sang quietly. We blessed the table's little votive candle and noted its light reflected in our fingernails.

OilWe blessed the One Who makes separations: between holy time and ordinary time, between Shabbat and the six days of the workweek. We blessed the One Who separates -- and bridges -- all of our distinctions. The One Who transcends and includes. And we poured a drop of wine onto our votive to extinguish it, and sang a good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!

I wonder what the people at the other tables thought of us. Of course, this was New York, and the Upper West Side to boot; many of them were probably Jewish. Anyway, no one seemed fazed. (I suppose it's harder than this to faze New Yorkers.) I wonder what the waitstaff thought we were doing. Had anyone ever made havdalah at this restaurant, at this place on the edge of the sidewalk before?

The moment could not have felt more liminal. There we were, on the threshold between Shabbat and week; between indoors and outdoors; between Jewish Renewal's rich past and the wide-open wonder of our future. This weekend we began a journey of deep listening and learning, a kind of intellectual and spiritual gleaning appropriate to this shmitta (Sabbatical) year. We are poised on the cusp, honoring and blessing our past and opening our hearts to the work which we know lies ahead.

CandleAs we sang there were tears in my eyes. There is something incomparably precious about experiencing Shabbat among my ALEPH hevre, my beloved colleague-friends. Bidding Shabbat farewell is always bittersweet, and it's more so when I have spent it with loved ones who I don't see often enough. But havdalah reminds me to open my heart and not to be afraid of the new week on its way.

One of the things I loved about the ALEPH rabbinic ordination program is how the low-residency format encouraged me (even obligated me) to integrate my spiritual life with my "ordinary life." ALEPH life was always an oscillation: between holy time and regular time; time with my colleagues, and time with my home community; time immersed in Torah, and time immersed in other things.

It was good practice for moments like this one: pausing in our conversation because it was time to sanctify this moment of Shabbat giving way to week, and then returning to our conversation with our hearts opened and our souls enlivened by the few moments of intention, of prayer and song.

On havdalah

Image002On a recent Saturday at my shul, we paused in an evening program to make havdalah. Afterwards, someone emailed me asking to learn more, pointing out that havdalah was entirely new to them, and perhaps to others as well.

Probably you know we begin Shabbat with a simple ritual: we light candles, bless the fruit of the vine (a symbol of joy and holiness), bless bread (which for most Ashkenazi Jews means challah, though in other parts of the world Jews bless other forms of bread, from tortillas to naan) and in many households also bless our children. Before this ritual, it's still work-week; after the blessings are spoken and the candles are lit, we've entered into the time-apart-from-time which we call Shabbat. Havdalah is the mirror reflection of that; as those blessings began Shabbat, havdalah is how Shabbat ends. The word havdalah means "separation."

At havdalah, we light a braided candle with many wicks, and hold it aloft for all to see. In the most traditional paradigm no fire is kindled during Shabbat, so the striking of the match to light the havdalah candle is a powerful first sign that Shabbat is ending. We bless the fruit of the vine once more. We bless fragrant spices, and pass them around to inhale their heady scent. We bless God who separates one thing from another: separates light from dark, one community from another, the rest day of Shabbat from the six days of work. And then we extinguish the candle in the wine. With that sputter and hiss, Shabbat comes to its end.

After the candle is extinguished, many of us have the custom of singing "Eliahu HaNavi" and/or its twin song "Miriam HaNeviah" -- songs expressing hope for redemption. Then we might sing "Shavua Tov" -- "A good week, a week of peace, may gladness reign and joy increase!" And with that, the new week begins.

I love havdalah. It's one of my favorite rituals in Jewish practice. And it is very much a ritual, not a ceremony. What's the difference? A ceremony, such as a graduation, celebrates and makes official something which has already occurred -- in the case of a graduation, it marks the fact that a student has completed a course of study. (But the course of study is complete already, whether or not the student walks across the stage to receive the diploma.) A ritual, such as havdalah, creates a spiritual change while it is taking place.

I love havdalah because it's the second bookend, the close-parenthesis, which balances the ritual of making Shabbat in the first place. On Friday night we light candles and bless wine; on Saturday night we bless wine and extinguish a candle. On Friday night we begin something special and sacred, and on Saturday night we bring it to its close. On Friday night we open a door, and on Saturday night we close it. We both start and finish Shabbat with mindfulness, taking a few minutes to be aware of a moment in time when something changes. Havdalah is a hinge, a fulcrum-point, balancing between the Shabbat which is ending and the new week which is beginning. We teeter at the top of the hill for a moment and then tumble down the other side.

Orion-Jupiter-and-clouds-Nov16_2012S-1024x682I love havdalah because it's so poignant. Usually the ritual is done in semi-darkness; we're supposed to be able to see three stars in the sky, so night is really falling. The day of Shabbat is coming to its end. And we gather together, sometimes standing in a circle with our arms around each other, and sing these last songs and gaze at this candle and smell the sweet spices which are meant to revive us from the impending departure of that second Shabbat soul. It feels as though we're coming together to savor the last moments of Shabbat sweetness before they're gone for the week.

I love havdalah because there are so many beautiful teachings about its additional layers of meaning. For instance: when the braided candle is held aloft, there is a custom of holding up one's hands to see the light illuminating our fingernails and our skin. The Hebrew word for light (אור) and the Hebrew word for skin (עור) are homonyms: they are both pronounced or. When we hold up our hands before the havdalah flame, we remember the teaching (from the Zohar) that in the world to come we will wear skins made out of light, garments woven out of the brightly shining mitzvot we performed in this life.

But most of all I love havdalah because even without all of the extra teachings and interpretations we can lay on top of it, it works. It makes a difference. Spending five minutes in a darkened room holding that braided candle aloft, making these blessings, breathing in the sweet spices, and then plunging the candle into the wine -- it does something. You can feel the change in the energy of the room. Something has ended and something else has begun.



Ending Shabbat: Havdalah - Ritualwell (overview, prayers and resources)

Havdalah: Taking Leave of Shabbat - My Jewish Learning (overview)

Havdalah blessings  - Union for Reform Judaism

Debbie Friedman's transformative havdalah melody (includes video) - Jewish Women International

The havdalah category of this blog


Image source for the second image: Astro-Bob.

Who separates, and connects, Shabbat and week

8991890544_aeb0e20fe9_mIt's not something I often do, by myself. I don't know why not. It only takes a few moments. At this season and at this latitude, of course, it happens well after putting our son to bed; in deepest midwinter it happens in the afternoon, well before even his early supper. I love that when we live attuned to the seasons around us, we experience that pendulum shift. The challenge, of course, is to enjoy what we have now without fearing what comes later; to enjoy what comes later without yearning for what we have now...

Havdalah makes me think of the end of the various retreats I went on as part of my rabbinic school journey: the end of a week at the old (or new) Elat Chayyim, the end of smicha students' week, the end of the ALEPH Kallah, the end of a week of DLTI. Our learning always culminated in a Shabbat which honestly felt like a foretaste of the world to come. And then we would gather for havdalah, standing in a big circle -- outdoors, if the season permitted it -- and the flame of the havdalah candle held aloft would streak our faces with gold.

I always used to cry during havdalah at those retreats. I would cry because the end of Shabbat meant that our retreat was ending; that my precious time with my community of fellow travelers, students and teachers alike, was waning; because as much as I looked forward to returning to my ordinary life back home, every time I parted from those beloved friends (and our shared paradigm, our shared language, our shared love of learning and of Torah and of God) felt like tearing myself away from something I wasn't sure how to live without.

Of course, the gift of havdalah is that it ushers in a new week, full of new joys and new adventures. And at the end of each week, Shabbat returns -- if we're willing and able to take notice. The flywheel keeps turning. Shabbat leads to week, which leads to Shabbat, which leads to week. Shabbat wouldn't be so special if it weren't experienced against the backdrop of weekday; but the weekday too has its ordinary pleasures.

There's something magical and bittersweet about havdalah, about marking the end of Shabbat with these words and these intentions. A last taste of Shabbat before it goes away for a week. The wine, a remembrance of how just last night we made kiddush. The fire, which gleams and glints on our fingernails, reminding us that we are beings made of light. The spices, which pre-emptively revive us lest we faint away at the removal of the second soul which tradition says we borrow during Shabbat. The blessing for God who separates between -- and, in the version I favor, also connects between -- Shabbat and week. (I learned that variation some years ago.)

Once the candle fizzles out in the wine, there's a palpable feeling of something missing. Singing Eliahu Hanavi and Miriam HaNeviah stirs my heart. What would it feel like, if the entire cosmos could live in Shabbat consciousness all the time? If cruelty and suffering could cease, if we could live in a world truly redeemed? God only knows. But at least we have the opportunity to dip into that feeling once a week, if we're willing and able to take it. And even when we sorrow at its departure, we know it will return.

Shavua tov / a good week, a week of peace; may gladness reign, and joy increase.




Distinctions (a poem for havdalah), 2013

As Shabbat wanes (2009)

Distinctions: a poem for Havdalah


In the end we're like children:
we thrive on distinctions
between me and you, us and them.
Made in Your image
we separate light from darkness,
family from stranger, weekday
from that fleeting taste of Paradise.

Wax drips from the braided candle.
Cinnamon tingles the nose
to keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs.
Stop now. Notice this hinge
between Shabbat
and what's next.

Plunge the candle into the wine
but don't cry: even without a flame
our light still shines. This
is our inheritance, better than rubies.
And now it's Saturday night, the cusp
of a new beginning, another day.
This week, may our hearts be whole.



This poem was written to accompany havdalah, the ceremony which ends Shabbat and begins the new week. (Though if you don't have the custom of making havdalah regularly, I suppose you could read this poem in place of havdalah; it's not the same as actually doing the ritual, of course, but it's a way of marking the transition with mindfulness.)

I'm experimenting with seven-line stanzas, meant to evoke the seven days of the week. "[T]o keep us from fainting
as the extra soul departs" is a reference to the teaching that an extra or second soul descends and enlivens us during Shabbat. We smell sweet spices at the end of Shabbat in order to revive ourselves despite the departure of that extra soul.

"[E]ven without a flame / our light still shines" is a reference both to the practice of extinguishing the havdalah candle in the sanctified wine, and to a line from the prayer we read as we begin havdalah: layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sasson v'ikar, ken tihiyeh lanu, "and for the Jewish people there was light and joy, gladness and honor; so may it be for us."

A havdalah ritual for the September equinox


Equinox and solstice photo courtesy of NASA.

The September equinox was yesterday.

Back at the end of June, I was blessed to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new moon) with the women of my congregation, and this past June, the start of Tammuz fell right around the time of the June solstice -- what is, in our hemisphere, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We celebrated with a havdalah ritual for the turn of the seasons, and it was wondrous.

Ever since then, I've been meaning to create a similar ritual for the fall equinox. And I did create one! I just didn't manage to post it in advance. (Please forgive me. Life's been a bit hectic around here lately.) Enclosed with this post is a havdalah ritual which marks and sanctifies the division between summer and fall.

What's the use of posting such a ritual after the equinox has passed? Well -- some sources indicate that while 9/22 is the equinox, the day when we will actually experience equal hours of daylight and darkness is Tuesday. So I think there is meaning in observing this special havdalah anytime between now and Tuesday, anytime between now and Yom Kippur.

Deep thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer, whose Tishrei wisdom at Tel Shemesh provided much of the inspiration for this havdalah!


Download FallEquinoxHavdalah [pdf]

Summer solstice and Rosh Chodesh Tamuz

NewmoonTonight at sundown we'll enter into the new lunar month of Tamuz. In a day or two, we'll reach the solstice -- in the northern hemisphere where I live, this is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year which is also always the beginning of the days starting to shorten again. The name of this month on the Jewish calendar recalls the Sumerian deity Tamuz, who died at this season and went into the underworld. Like Tamuz, we too will experience a kind of remembered death during the season to come, as we descend into mourning for the temple which has long fallen.

I've spent the past few weeks collecting teachings about the month of Tamuz in Jewish tradition (the Tammuz page at Tel Shemesh is extraordinarily helpful) and about the summer solstice in Jewish tradition (hat tip once again to Rabbi Jill Hammer; also to Rabbi T'mimah Ickovitz for her solstice teachings) and preparing a short ritual for the new moon of Tamuz which is also a ritual of havdalah, separation, between the spring now ending and the summer we're about to begin.

Tonight (many of) the women of my congregation will gather in my backyard for this havdalah new moon ritual and then for some learning about this new moon and about the solstice in Jewish tradition. There are some tough things about Tamuz. In the coming month we'll remember the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem; we'll enter into the Three Weeks, the period called bein ha-meitzarim, "between the narrow straits," during which we prepare ourselves to mourn the fallen temple and the broken world at Tisha b'Av.

And yet this month contains blessings, too. Rosh Chodesh Tamuz is the birthday of the patriarch Joseph. Like the Sumerian god Tamuz, Joseph descended into the earth -- not into the underworld, but into a pit, and then into Egypt. And it was because of that descent that he was able to ascend so high, and to bring his entire people with him. May our descent during this season also be for the sake of ascent!

For those who are interested: here are two pages of collected teachings about Tamuz and the summer solstice, and also a two-page ritual for entering into summer / celebrating havdalah ha-tekufah, a solstice havdalah. (This is what we'll be working with at our Rosh Chodesh group tomorrow night, so if you're part of that group, you might want to skip these downloads in order to encounter the ritual and the teachings fresh. Or, you might want to download them in advance in order to spend more time with them! As you prefer.) I am deeply indebted to Rabbi Jill Hammer, from whom this ritual is adapted. Feel free to use and enjoy. Chodesh tov / a good new month to all.

Download RoshChodeshTamuzRitual [pdf]

Download RoshChodeshTamuzTeachings [pdf]



It's after Drew's bedtime. He's asleep in his crib. We've finished dinner. The sky is turning a glorious deep fading evening blue. I step outside to see if there are stars; I can only spot one, but I hear the first veery thrushes of the season. Their spiraling song amazes me again, and I call to David and Amberly and Rhonda to come outside and hear them with me. I say the shehecheyanu; I haven't heard this song since last year.

We return to the indoors, sit and natter a little longer. A short while later, when we go back outside, there are three stars. It's time.

We stand in a circle. I light the braided havdalah candle and hold it high, its many wicks making a bright flame which dances and casts shadows across the deck. I feel like Lady Liberty, holding my torch aloft.

We sing " לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר / layehudim haita ora v'simcha v'sason v'ikar" -- "'For the Jews there was radiance, and happiness, and joy, and honor' / so may it be for us!" (The quote is from Esther 8:16.) Let us be a light, I think, in the week to come.

We take turns offering the havdalah blessings -- over wine, over fire, over sweet spices, over separation -- interspersed with the melody we were already singing. This is a melody we learned from Rabbi Marcia Prager and Hazzan Jack Kessler. Some say the melody is by Shlomo; others say it's by Moshe Schur, written for Reb Aryeh. I grew up on Debbie Friedman's melody; it takes me back to summer camp and to childhood and to havdalah with my family of origin. But this other one stirs something deep in me.

Hearing it, I am mystically hyperlinked to the havdalah ceremony at the end of every Jewish Renewal Shabbat I've ever experienced. The end of smicha students' week at the old Elat Chayyim, in Albuquerque, in Ohio, at Pearlstone. The end of every DLTI shabbat and Elat Chayyim retreat Shabbat. It's so beautiful, and yet so bittersweet. It means Shabbat is over. The retreat is ending. It's time to return to ordinary life. I remember weeping through havdalah, time and again, not ready to say goodbye to the Shabbat bride or to my friends.

And yet here I am now, standing on my own deck at my own house, and I have brought those friends -- and the Shabbat bride! -- home with me. We are singing the same melody, with the same intentions, with the same heart. In our faces I see the radiance of Shekhinah.

After the candle is doused in the wine, as we sing Eliahu HaNavi and Miriam HaNeviah, David dips a finger into the kiddush cup and paints a drop of the sanctified wine above each of our eyes, an embodied blessing that we might see the world through the eyes of Torah and blessing in the week to come.

Shabbat comes, Shabbat delights, and then Shabbat leaves. But the connections we make with her, and with one another, remain.


Havdalah candle image by Kim Romain.

Poem: havdalah in the toddler house






When we light the candle
you begin to wail

frightened by the unruly flame
spreading from wick to wick

(or maybe you aren't ready
for the Bride to leave us)

you refuse the strange silver tower
of cracked cinnamon curls

(at two, the extra soul
doesn't yet depart)

during the redemption song
we whirl and your face shines

This poem is the second in a small budding series (the first being Early maariv in the toddler house, written and posted at the tail-end of November.)

Havdalah means "separation;" it is this ritual which formally separates between Shabbat and workweek. It involves the lighting of a braided candle, blessing wine and blessing spices, blessing God Who creates separations, and then extinguishing the candle in the wine, after which one sings "Eliahu Hanavi" (and, in our house, "Miriam Ha-Neviah"), a song about prophets and redemption.

(At Jewish Women International there's a video of a havdalah ceremony, beginning with R' Shlomo Carlebach's melody for the prayer Hineh El Yeshuati and then moving into Debbie Friedman's melody for the havdalah blessings -- may both of their memories be for blessing. On that page you can also read my teacher R' Leila Gal-Berner's words for "Miriam Ha-Neviah.")

The scent of spice, associated with Shabbat and with Shekhinah (the immanent, indwelling Presence of God) is intended to revive one when Shabbat's extra soul departs. In our house we use a tall silver spicebox shaped like a tower.

Does Drew know what Shabbat is? He may know that sometimes he gets watered grape juice in his sippy cup instead of milk, and that on those nights, there are often candles on the table, and also challah, which is one of his favorite breads. At two, he's too young to intellectually understand concepts like Shabbat and work-week.

But in a certain way, I wonder whether babies and very young children experience life as a kind of perennial Shabbat. Shabbat is an opportunity to re-enter the garden of Eden; but before language is fully developed, I think our children may already be there, that "extra soul" and connection with the Infinite already part of who they are.

Mincha, maariv, havdalah, bat mitzvah siddur

One of the reasons there wasn't a new version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggdah for Pesach this year is that the time, energy, and attention that I typically invest in haggadah revisions went, this year, toward creating a siddur for my niece's bat mitzvah.

I wanted to create something which would be liturgically complete enough that those who needed to feel yotzei (that they had fulfilled their obligation to pray) would be able to achieve that goal -- but at the same time I wanted our homegrown liturgy to be pray-able in Hebrew and in English, and I wanted it to be accessible to those who were unaccustomed to Shabbat afternoon/evening davenen and/or to Jewish prayer in general.

I wanted to showcase my niece's prose and poetry and illustrations alongside some of my other favorite liturgical poems and passages. I wanted a balance of tradition and innovation that would meet my niece's (and her immediate family's) needs, and would also give a sense of one way to daven Renewal-style (since that's the flavor of prayer I find sweetest.) And I wanted to accomplish all of this in a way that honored our schedule, ideally in a way that would leave people wanting more.

I'm tremendously proud of the end result, and I'm offering it here as a resource. I imagine it may be helpful to folks who are preparing to lead mincha/maariv/havdalah services, especially when there's a bar or bat mitzvah involved. It may also be interesting to my fellow liturgy geeks -- and to those members of my family who weren't present but would like to see the siddur we used -- and, who knows, maybe to others, too!

This .pdf file doesn't include the watercolor cover (which you can see below in tiny thumbnail form) nor Emma's many illustrations (I'm especially sorry that this doesn't include her shviti drawing, a beautiful full-color illustration of a Tree of Life with God's names interwoven among the leaves and bark.) But it does include poems (hers and mine, alongside a few other favorites) and also my niece's terrific midrash on this week's parsha, Shlach, which gives voice to some of the Israelites sent to investigate the land of Canaan. This siddur offers one possible way to celebrate both the liminal space of Shabbat afternoon/evening, and of a young woman's formal religious coming-of-age.

siddur for mincha / maariv / havdalah [.pdf]

(Edited in 2005 to add: an updated version of this siddur is now available at my website: scroll down to the "Lifecycle" section of my ritual archive and download the pdf from there.)

Of course, nothing's perfect -- not even a siddur created lovingly and proofread assiduously by smart people (thanks, Aliza!) There are a few typos. And we neglected to inform the printer that we wanted these bound on the right, whoops. And, of course, this bound siddur doesn't include any of the kavvanot that I offered aloud from the bimah -- the words I spoke and sang to introduce and explain the various parts of the service. But isn't that always the way? Even the most beautiful prayerbook is always, inevitably, what my teacher Reb Zalman calls "freeze-dried liturgy"; voices, intention, and heart are needed to reconstitute it and bring it to life.

I welcome questions about and responses to the siddur. Enjoy!


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