Distinctions and the Fear of Heaven - Berakhot 33
In the special blessing instituted by Rav and Shmuel, two pre-eminent rabbis in mid-3rd century Babylonia, we see much rabbinic ideology of havdallah. There is a formal havdallah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the regular week, but the concept goes deeper. There is a fault line in Talmudic Judaism separating Shabbat from the week, holy from ordinary, light from dark, and Israel from everyone else. Though a value statement is implicit in the divisions of end-of-Shabbat liturgy, it is made explicit in this new form: God has made Shabbat is holier than working days, and Israel is similarly holy because God has given them his festivals, Shabbats, and commandments. It IS appropriate to have pride in oneself and one’s tradition, but one does not need to feel BETTER than others to do so.
The second challenge is more philosophical – if God (metaphorically, “Heaven” or “sky” – shamayim), is all-powerful, how can an individual’s behavior and choices be judged? What gives one merit over any other? The Talmudic answer: “all is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” In more flippant translation: God runs everything except whether people obey him! This phrase for obedience, or worship, or piety strikes us as unusual – is fear really an ideal relationship? In a world where human power to control life and death was minimal and the caprices of disease, disaster, and fate were great, perhaps such a reaction was natural. Today, however, life is too precious a commodity to live it in fear – let us live in joy instead.
Rabbi Adam Chalom
For the complete text of the traditional Havdallah ritual, you can visit