“Who divides holiness from holiness”

A familiar prayer suddenly seems profound.

This year, as happens once in seven years, the first Passover Seder falls on Saturday night. What 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 pefectly 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 amongdifferent 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com