NEW YORK — The lights were turned off, except for two round ones on each side of the bimah, a reading table near the center of the synagogue. The mechitzah was taken down, and about 20 worshippers at the Congregation Ramath Orah on 550 W. 110th St. on Manhattan’s Upper West Side walked towards the center and stood side by side surrounding the bimah. Facing the entrance, men stood on the right side and women on the left. A Kiddush cup, a lit braided candle and small spice bags were on top of the bimah.
Anna Baron, a 23-year-old law student, arrived at the shul with her fiancé, Ross Boltyanskiy, a 30-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a few minutes before the Havdalah service started at 5:51 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Baron grabbed a prayer book from the bookshelf located on the right side of the entrance and sat in the last pew of the women’s side near the aisle next to the mechitzah that separates the men’s section from the women’s.
The Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8-11, says to keep the Sabbath as a holy day for the Lord, and as God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested, the people of God will rest on the seventh day as well. To mark the separation of the Sabbath and the new week, Jews participate in a ritual called Havdalah.
A few minutes into the Havdalah service, Baron was one of the first people to rush towards the bimah. Rabbi Moshe Grussgott gave her the braided candle. She held it with her left hand as the congregation surrounded her. Rabbi Grussgott recited the blessings in Hebrew for each ceremonial item in the Havdalah service. First, he gave the blessing over the wine. Then the worshipers passed around small spice bags, which each person sniffed for sweetness and strength in the upcoming week. After that, Baron held high the candle while everyone placed their hands towards its light. Each person held their hands in front of them and turned them upside down while bending their fingers.
Baron and Boltyanskiy have been attending this modern Orthodox synagogue for about a year and a half. Both of their families live in New York City. Weekly, they rotate where they spend Sabbath between Manhattan, with Boltyanskiy’s family in Brooklyn or Baron’s family in Queens. Six months ago, Rabbi Grussgott asked Baron to hold the candle during Saturday night Havdalah services.
For Baron, the experience of holding the braided candle is a big honor. Rabbi Grussgott randomly asked her, she said, because there are not that many women that come to the synagogue towards the end of the Sabbath.
“I feel like it is a big honor, a big responsibility,” Baron said. “It is very special to do Havdalah all together as a community.”
Baron believes that this simple act of seeing the reflection of the light in their fingernails could be related to reflection and growth.
“Nails are constantly growing,” Baron said. “We kind of go through the week looking at something that it is constantly growing, so that we can constantly grow in the upcoming week.”
Boltyanskiy is still learning about the significance of specific ceremonies, but he said that he has heard of a mystical interpretation for this ritual.
“Adam was sort of covered in the material that is like our fingernails,” Boltyanskiy said.
Why do the Havdalah candles have to be braided? Boltyanskiy explains that the candles represent the intertwining between the Sabbath and the rest of the week.
“On the Sabbath, we are working on ourselves, we stay at home,” Boltyanskiy said. “It’s meant to be a more like a self-work and the rest of the week is really outside, that is why we go out and we work and integrate and communicate with everybody else.”
Gila Lipton, 78, has been a member of Congregation Ramath Orah for seven years, and explains the significance of the worshipers putting up their hands towards the light of the candle and turning them upside down while curving their fingers, which generates a shadow.
“That shows the difference between light and darkness,” Lipton said. “And again, asking God to bless us.” She added that everybody asks God together to give them the blessings of light all through the week.
Rabbi Grussgott poured the wine onto the fire of the braided candle that Baron was still holding, marking the end of the Sabbath. Everyone said to each other Shavua Tov, which means have a good week.