HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU
There are two things about Havdalah that many of us are unaware of. The first is that Havdalah is not, nor has it ever been limited to the conclusion of Shabbat. Each time a festival mentioned in the Torah is brought to a close, Havdalah is recited. Accordingly, Havdalah is recited at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Pesach, etc. The second is that it is not necessary that wine be used when reciting Havdalah. Hamar Medinah (literally, the wine of the land, although it is more commonly understood to mean the beverage of the land) is arguably also acceptable. With the exception of water, there are those who recite Havdalah over coffee, Coca-Cola, or whatever happens to be the leading thirst quencher. Rabbi Elijah Kramer (1720-1797) more commonly known as the Gaon of Vilna, would make it a point to bid farewell to Pesach, by reciting Havdalah over beer! The venerated sage maintained that in doing so, he was following the custom of the time.
I have no idea what the impetus behind the custom of the time was back in the mid to late 18th century, but I do know that in a land devoid of Dr. Pepper, Rabbi Elijah Kramer must have had an excellent reason for choosing beer as Hamar Medinah over any other popular beverage at the time, especially over wine.
Historians tell us, that ancient Egypt was a class-conscious society. So much so, that there was one beverage for the wealthy and another beverage for the poor. The wealthy of ancient Egypt drank wine; the poor of ancient Egypt drank beer. Assuming he was aware of Egypt’s class-conscious society, perhaps the Gaon of Vilna was “bookending” the festival of Pesach. Eight nights earlier, Jews in the Diaspora introduced the festival by focusing on the bread of the impoverished. Now, as Jews are bidding a farewell to Pesach, it makes perfect sense to do so, by focusing on beer, the beverage of the impoverished.
The Egyptian word for beer is “henkat.” Among the many character traits for which our sages were known, was their penchant for wordplay. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised, if rabbinic leadership around the time of the Gaon of Vilna and prior to the time of the Gaon of Vilna was aware of the Egyptian word “henkat” and saw a similarity between that word and the Hebrew word Chanukat (as in Chanukat HaBayit or the dedication of the refurbished Holy Temple). After all, a parallel existed between the one-day supply of oil defying nature and burning for seven additional days and the Sea of Reeds defying nature and splitting apart, creating a pathway for the Children of Israel, seven days into their journey of freedom. To carry the parallel further, Antiochus made life unbearable for our people; Pharaoh made life unbearable for our people. Perhaps, in choosing “henkat” for the first chometz to cross his lips as he recited Havdalah, the Gaon of Vilna was attempting to ensure that the similarities between the Festival of Freedom and the Festival of Lights along with their shared message of victory over the enemy, not be swept away with the crumbs of the Pesach matzah.
The Egyptians were the pioneers of fermentation. Fermentation aided the Egyptians in perfecting the caste system they treasured so very much. There are those who maintain that yeast was known to the Egyptians long before other civilizations. This would explain the Egyptians refusing to break bread with foreigners, including Joseph (Genesis 43:32). Superiority was not only very much evident between Egyptians and others; superiority was also very much evident within Egyptian society as well. If wine was for the wealthy and beer was for the blue-collar worker as noted above, then the Egyptian society in which our ancestors were enslaved, was one where all people were created equal, some more equal than others. Perhaps this too was very much on the mind of the Gaon of Vilna, as he recited Havdalah at the end of Pesach, cup of beer in hand. Referred to as the season of our freedom, the Festival of Pesach not only serves to remind us of freedom from enslavement by another nation but also of freedom of class distinction. Why, even in personal preparation for the festival, our rabbinic sages made it a point to spell out and include one who receives his meals from the soup kitchen (viz. the pauper) when adjuring Jews to refrain from eating hours before the seder, so that all – rich and poor alike – come to the seder with an appetite.
I pray, that just as Pesach was properly received, so too is it properly escorted. Even if beer is not your beverage of choice for Havdalah, bear in mind that there is great symbolism in “bookending the festival” (introduce it with the bread of impoverishment; conclude it with the beverage of impoverishment). Consider how henkat and Chanukat evoke similarities between the two festivals. Recall that true freedom is experienced when society is no longer defined by social or economic class so that no Jew ever looks down upon another Jew. Here’s looking at you!