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Between Sacred and Mundane; Between Sitting and Standing

Tevet 5782 | December 2021

Sometimes a happy occasion brings together a large family for Shabbat, or a large group spends Shabbat together at a resort. Even more often, Yeshiva or seminary students, or dormitory high schools, spend Shabbat together. On these and other occasions, a large group of people will gather for Havdalah at the end of Shabbat. Scented herbs are distributed for besamim, the lights are dimmed, and the candle is lit. But what should happen next? Should everyone sit or stand for the recitation of Havdalah?

Since Havdalah includes several brachot of varying nature, this creates a real dilemma. On the one hand, the purpose of the ceremony is to distinguish between the sacred and the mundane; this is a blessing that escorts Shabbat as it leaves, in a parting gesture, and it is therefore fitting that the ceremony should be performed standing. On the other hand, the blessing is recited over wine; this is reminiscent of Kiddush and other blessings of thanksgiving that are always recited over wine, which require sitting in a fixed position.

According to the Kolbo, one should stand for the recitation of Havdalah:

It is customary to recite Havdalot [lit. ‘separations’] with singing on motzei Shabbat. This is likened to a king who is escorted by his nation with joy and song, so too Israel escort Shabbat the Bride and Queen with joy and song. It is therefore appropriate to make Havdalah standing up as though to honor the King as he departs, and when escorting a king, one typically stands.

Tosfot were familiar with this custom, which is fitting for the blessing of Havdalah; however, they were uneasy with the practice due to the demands of the blessing over wine. According to the Mishna in Berachot, one person can exempt others from the blessing on bread at the beginning of the meal as long as those wishing to be exempt are seated. Conversely, in the case of the blessing on wine in the middle of a meal, since it is hard to get everyone’s attention while they are eating, one may not exempt others from the blessing (although a provision for exempting others is made at the end of the meal). Based on this, Tosfot understood that in order to exempt others from the blessing on wine, it is necessary that those wishing to be exempt are seated when the blessing is recited. It is possible that the act of gathering for Havdalah is sufficient. Regardless, Tosfot preferred to alter the custom, and require participants to sit during Havdalah.

In reality, there seems to be a tension between the festive feel of the ceremony and the need to sit in a fixed position, which is the appropriate stance for the blessing over wine. The Shulhan Arukh ruled that Havdalah should be recited while seated; however, according to the Rema the custom is to make Havdalah standing up. Some Achronim followed the Shulhan Arukh (such as the Hazon Ish and the Mishnah Berurah, at least optimally), while others ruled like the Rema (such as the Pri Megadim, Arukh ha-Shulhan, and Ben Ish Hai). The Gra ruled that Havdalah should be recited while seated, but testimonials exist that his custom was to stand.

  1. Ovadia Yosef ruled according to the Shulhan Arukh. However, he noted that sitting was required specifically when participants intended to drink from the wine, since in this case the blessing is intended to exempt them from making their own blessing on drinking the wine; if their participation is for the purpose of Havdalah but they do not intend to drink, they may stand. R. Ovadia explained that this indeed was the discrepancy between the Gra’s ruling to sit during Havdalah, and the testimonials that in practice he stood – presumably when the participants had no intention of drinking the wine.

Whether the focus of this ceremony is to escort Shabbat as one might escort a king as he departs, which requires standing, or to maintain a fixed position in order to be exempt from the blessing on wine, which requires sitting – certainly the most important factor is to listen and pay attention, having in mind to have the intention to participate and be exempted by the person who is reciting Havdalah.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.