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“Who divides holiness from holiness”

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This year, as happens once in seven years, the first Passover Seder falls on Saturday night. When that happens, those of us who are otherwise not sufficiently observant to conduct the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath (which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) get to say the prayer called Hamavdil (which translates, roughly, “He who divides,” or perhaps “He who distinguishes”).

On the rare occasions when I have heard it, the text of that prayer has always puzzled me:

Blessed are You, HaShem our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who divides the sacred from the rest, light from darkness, Israel from the [other] nations, the seventh day from the six days of work. You have divided the holiness of the Sabbath from the holiness of the festivals, and sanctified the seventh day over the six days of work. You have divided the holiness of Your people Israel from Your own holiness.

Blessed are You, HaShem, who divides holiness from holiness.

The text seems puzzling on two levels.

First, it seems astonishingly metaphysical. To praise God for bringing forth bread from the earth or rescuing Israel from Egypt seems straightforward; to offer praise for the making of distinctions represents a great feat of abstraction.
Second, what’s that last sentence doing there? The prayer starts out with the distinction sacred/profane, and recapitulates it as light/darkness, Israel/outsiders, Sabbath/weekday. That makes sense as part of a transition ceremony marking the movement from the sacred time of the Sabbath to the profane time of the workweek.

The prayer then moves to distinctions among various kinds of holiness. But the final sentence, which it would seem should sum up the whole, apparently refers only to the second part, the distinctions among holiness in its various forms. That seems, as a purely poetic matter, to be unbalanced; why not “Who divides the holy from the rest, and one holiness from another?”

Reading that passage over this afternoon in preparation for the Seder, it came to me that the last sentence could be read in quite a different sense, a sense that would make it perfectly poetically well-crafted rather than clumsy.
Imagine for a moment that the last sentence is, after all, intended to sum up the whole prayer. The implication would be that the first set of distinctions, which appear at first glance to be between the sacred and the profane, are in fact distinctions among different kinds of sacredness: that the workweek is sacred as well as the Sabbath, darkness as well as light, the nations as well as Israel.

I’m hoping that some reader more learned than I in these matters — and there could hardly be a reader less learned — can tell me whether (1) this interpretation is already well known and accepted; (2) this interpretation is already well-known to be an error; or (3) this interpretation is one side of a live controversy with valid arguments on each side.

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About Mark Kleiman

  • SFC SKI

    I think the word “distinguishes” works to expalin the prayer better, but I am no scholar.

  • Gennadij Raivich

    The last sentence in a bracha is a global summing up and an accentuation of the cause that has led us to praise Hashem, at this point in time. And it is quite appropriate here, since we are separating between the holiness of shabat (ie where all work/malacha is forbidden) and the holiness of the festival (where only malechet avoda is forbidden).

    It wouldn’t be appropriate at this point in time in the final summing up to praise Hashem for separating between the profane (where normal business is allowed) and holy, since both days are holy. Because if one did it in the final summing up, and not in the body of the tefilla, it would raise doubt if one has grasped the point.
    So we praise Hashem for separating between the two states of holiness.
    In my haggada, the translated text accentuates this, by translating the Hebrew text into “he who separates the most holy from holy”.

    Profane days are not without some residual sacredness – after all, we don the tefillin, say Shma at the appointed times, study the torah etc.
    And the goyim are to some extent consecrated through Brit-Noach, in as far as they are already under the yoke of the 7 Noachide commandments (not to murder, not to steal etc).

    But it is not the profane days that are particularly referred to in the final verse.