Shiur 12: Havdala for Women

  • Rav Chaim Navon

I. The Mitzva of Havdala


            The Gemara in Shevu’ot (18b) cites the verse, “And that you may differentiate between holy and unholy” (Vayikra 10:10), as a source for the mitzvaof Havdala. It is not clear from the Gemara whether this verse actually serves as a Torah source for the mitzva of Havdala, or whether it is merely an asmakhta, homiletical support from a Biblical verse for what is in fact a Rabbinic enactment. The mitzva of Havdala may, however, have a stronger Biblical source. The Rambam writes in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot as follows:


Mitzva 155:  That God has commanded us to sanctify Shabbat and to utter words at its entrance and at its departure. We must mention the greatness and rank of this day, and its distinction from the other days that precede it and follow it. This is what He said (may He be adored): “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Shemot 20:8). That is, remember it by mentioning its sanctity and greatness. This is the mitzva of Kiddush… And they also said: “Sanctify it at its entrance and sanctify it at its departure,” that is, Havdala, which is also part of remembering Shabbat in the proper manner, as commanded. (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive Commandment 155)


The wording of the Rambam implies that both Kiddush and Havdala are derived from the verse “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” His formulation suggests that Kiddush and Havdala constitute a single entity, a framework that opens and closes the day of Shabbat. This is also implied by the Rambam’s ruling in the Mishneh Torah:


It is a positive commandment from the Torah to sanctify the Shabbat day with a verbal statement, as it is stated: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” – i.e., remember it with [words of] praise [that reflect its] holiness. This remembrance must be made at the entrance of Shabbat and at its departure: At the [day's] entrance with the Kiddush that sanctifies the day, and at its departure with Havdala.(Hilkhot Shabbat 29:1)


The Maggid Mishneh comments here that, according to the Rambam, the mitzva of Havdala is Biblically mandated, while allowing that some disagree and say that it is only mandated by Rabbinic enactment.


II. The Obligation of Women in Havdala


            The Gemara in Berakhot (20b) states that women are obligated in Kiddush by Torah law, despite the fact that it is a time-bound positive commandment. This is because Kiddush is included in the positive commandment that establishes the nature of Shabbat – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” The Gemara asserts that whoever is obligated to safeguard Shabbat (“shamor” – observe the prohibitions of Shabbat) is also obligated to remember Shabbat (“zakhor” – observe the positive commandments of Shabbat). Women are certainly obligated to refrain from performing forbidden labor on Shabbat, and therefore they are also obligated in the mitzva of Kiddush.


            The Beit Yosef (Orach Chayyim 296) writes in the name of Rabbeinu Yona that a parallel should be drawn regarding this point between Kiddush and Havdala: Just as women are obligated in Kiddush, so too they are obligated in Havdala. In contrast, the Orchot Chayyim (Hilkhot Havdala, no. 18)argues that as Havdala is a Rabbinic enactment, it cannot be compared to Kiddush in this respect. Others maintain that even if Havdala is only a Rabbinic enactment, the Sages gave it the nature of the Torah law of “zakhor,” remembering Shabbat (Mishna Berura, Orach Chayyim 296, no. 34). If the Torah laws of remembering Shabbat obligate women, it may be presumed that the corresponding Rabbinic laws concerning Havdala obligate women as well.


In the other direction, the Peri Megadim writes that Havdala is not included among the laws of Shabbat, as it is recited after the conclusion of Shabbat. This being the case, Havdala is like any other ordinary time-bound positive commandment, from which women are exempt. According to this understanding, the special law of remembering Shabbat, which relates to the positive commandments of Shabbat, is irrelevant to Havdala. It should also be noted that the comparison is between “remembering” Shabbat and “safeguarding” it. However, as we have seen, there are those who derive the mitzva of Havdala from the verse, “And that you may differentiate between holy and unholy,” which, unlike the verse from Shemot,has no parallel verse that addresses “safeguarding” Shabbat.


            In practice, the Shulchan Arukh cites both opinions: “Women are obligated in Havdala just as they are obligated in Kiddush, though there are those who disagree” (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 296:8). The Shulchan Arukh makes use here of the format known as “an unattributed ruling followed by ‘some say,’” and it is generally accepted that in such a case he means to rule in accordance with the first opinion. In this case, then, the Shulchan Arukh rules that women are, in fact, obligated in Havdala.


            The Rema there writes that since there is disagreement on the issue, women should not recite Havdala for themselves, but rather should hear Havdala from men. The Acharonim are puzzled by the Rema's ruling: Surely the Rema himself rules that women who so desire may recite blessings over time-bound positive commandments, such as blowing the shofar and taking the lulav. Therefore, even if we rule that women are exempt from Havdala, they should still be able to recite Havdala for themselves, just as they can recite blessings over other mitzvot from which they are exempt.


            The Magen Avraham (no. 11) answers that women can recite a blessing over amitzva that involves an action, but they cannot recite a blessing which is itself the mitzva. He himself rejects this argument and rules (following the Bach) that women can, in fact, recite Havdala. He even notes that it is more reasonable to say the very opposite of what the Rema says, namely, that even those who maintain that a woman cannot recite a blessing over a time-bound positive commandment might agree that a woman can recite Havdala. This is because the text of the blessing does not include the words “and has commanded us,” which are problematic for someone who is not included in the command.


            The Acharonim discuss the issue at length. The Taz argues that women are only permitted to recite a blessing over time-bound positive commandments in the case of Torah commandments, but all agree that they may not recite a blessing in the case of time-bound Rabbinic commandments, such as Havdala. The Arukh Ha-shulchan (Orach Chayyim 296:5) points out that taking a lulav all seven days of Sukkot (after the first day) is only a Rabbinic commandment, and yet women are accustomed to reciting a blessing over it. He writes further that most authorities maintain that the mitzva of Havdala is from the Torah, and so the Taz's answer does not help. And even if the mitzva of Havdala is only Rabbinic, there are many authorities who maintain that even women are obligated in Havdala by Rabbinic enactment. It is therefore difficult to say that women should refrain from reciting Havdala because there is disagreement about the matter.


            The Arukh Ha-shulchan adds that, according to some authorities, women should not recite Havdala because they do not drink from the cup over which Havdala is recited. He is very skeptical about this reasoning, as there is no halakha that forbids women to drink from the Havdala cup; it is merely a custom that is not even followed by all women.[1]


            As for the law in practice, the Mishna Berura (nos. 35, 36) writes that it is preferable that a woman fulfill her obligation by way of a man's Havdala. However, if the man has already recited Havdala for himself, it is preferable that the woman recite Havdala for herself, as we do not permit a man to recite Havdala a second time solely for the sake of a woman’s questionable obligation.[2] Obviously, if there is no man present, the woman can and must recite Havdala for herself and other women.


            In addition to the blessing of Havdala itself, we recite three other blessings over the course of the Havdala ceremony: “Borei peri ha-gefen” over the wine; “borei minei besamim” over spices; and “borei me'orei ha-esh” over fire. The Magen Avraham writes that it is obvious that women can recite the blessings over wine and spices, as these are birkot ha-nehenin,blessings recited over the enjoyment derived from these things, and regarding such blessings there is no difference between men and women.


The Bei’ur Halakha notes that the Magen Avraham does not address the blessing recited over fire, and not without reason: The blessing recited over fire is not a birkat ha-nehenin, but rather a birkat ha-shevach,a blessing of praise. Therefore, it is defined as a time-bound positive commandment and women are exempt from it. The Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata (chap. 61, n. 24) therefore rules that a woman can recite the blessing over the fire at the end of Havdala, just like any other blessing from which she is exempt, which, according to the Ashkenazi authorities, a woman can recite if she so desires. However, if a woman recites Havdala for herself, she should not recite the blessing over fire in the middle of Havdala, because that would involve an interruption between the blessing recited over the wine and the drinking of the wine.[3]


            According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, however (Responsa Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, pt. II, no. 47), women are obligated to recite the blessing over fire. He presents a novel idea: We do not examine each blessing individually to see whether it is time bound, but rather, we relate to all blessings of praise and all blessing recited over mitzvot as a single entity. This unified mitzvais defined as the obligation to recite a blessing over each mitzva and each event that Chazal deemed worthy of a blessing. Some of these events occur at specific times, but the general mitzva to recite blessings of praise is fundamentally dependent not on time but on the event. The Iggerot Moshe does not add to what he says here, but it seems that according to what he says, we should conclude that a woman is obligated to recite the blessing over fire in the middle of Havdala (and not separately afterwards), as she is obligated in this blessing just as she is obligated in the other blessings of Havdala.


            Furthermore, the Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilkhata raises the possibility that even if women are exempt from reciting the blessing over fire, they should not be forbidden to recite it in the middle of Havdala (chap. 61, note 69). Why should this be so? The Shulchan Arukh rules that one should not recite this blessing over a fire that was lit on Shabbat, even if it was lit by a non-Jew (unless it was lit for the sake of saving a life [Orach Chayyim 298:5]). Rabbi Akiva Eiger writes that if a person recited a blessing over such a fire, he must repeat the blessing recited over the wine, as he interrupted between that blessing and his drinking with a blessing recited in vain over the fire. Some authorities compared the case of reciting the blessing over an inappropriate flame to the case of a woman reciting the blessing, ruling that a woman’s recitation is similarly considered an interruption. But the two cases are not at all similar. The blessing that the woman recites over the fire is not a blessing recited in vain; she even receives reward for it, as one who performs a mitzva without being obligated to do so. This is not the case regarding a fire that was lit on Shabbat, as a blessing recited on such a fire would certainly be in vain. Why, then, should we say that when a woman recites a blessing over fire in the middle of Havdala it is considered an interruption?


            It seems to me that, in practice, many women are accustomed to recite the blessing over fire in course of Havdala, following the ordinary Havdala formula.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] I might add that many women have drunk from the Havdala cup without growing a beard as a result, despite the prevalent myth regarding the matter.

[2] If women are not obligated to recite Havdala, they can still recite the blessing on their own, but others cannot recite the blessing for them based on the principle of areivut (mutual responsibility). It should further be noted that the Menuchat Ahava (I, 9, 13) rules that it is preferable that a woman hear Havdala from a man who has not yet fulfilled his own obligation, but if he has already recited Havdala, he may recite it a second time on her behalf.

[3] According to Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, XIV, no. 43, if a man already recited Havdala and is now reciting Havdala a second time for a woman, even he should not recite the blessing over the fire.