Global Jewish Reflections | Celebrating Havdalah, Community, and Connection in Havana

Havdalah is a chance not just to transition out of Shabbat but also our own power to create and build community, JDC Entwine's Rabbi Joshua Mikutis writes.

By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis - JDC Entwine Jewish Learning Designer | December 25, 2020

Joshua, right, poses for a photo with other JDC Entwine team members after an event in Washington, DC in 2018.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Spending time in Cuba can be disorienting. It’s a country that occupies such significant psychic space in the American mind that it takes on a mythic quality.

When you do arrive, things still feel a little surreal: Finally, you’ve made it to this place that has always been tantalizingly close, yet closed off. 

It’s at moments such as that when I feel deep gratitude for the grounding quality of Jewish ritual. No matter where in the world we are, we have a set of tools on hand that can help us situate ourselves and feel at home.

When you do arrive, things still feel a little surreal: Finally, you’ve made it to this place that has always been tantalizingly close, yet closed off. 

The ritual that has brought me consistent peace and comfort through its reordering of our cluttered world is havdalah. During havdalah, the ceremony that happens at the end of Shabbat, we mark our transition from the 25 hours of rest and repose back to the regular week. It might sound melancholy, but for me, it has always been infused with joy. Havdalah engages the senses: Through sight, smell, taste, and song, we are eased on our way out of Shabbat’s embrace. And wherever I have been in the world, havdalah takes on the flavor of its location yet retains this special type of happiness.  

I’ve never encountered a havdalah as joyous as the one in Havana, where the ritual brings together the Cuban Jewish community in a spirit of partnership and festivity. Teens and seniors dance, young children bounce on the laps of their grandparents, and the traditional havdalah ceremony takes the community from Shabbat and transports them back into the week. This may sound akin to other communal havdalahs, but there is an ineffable joy that infuses the celebration that makes it stand out.

Participants of a JDC Entwine HUC-JIR trip to Georgia hold an outdoor prayer service.

Some of that joy, I think, comes from a place of recognition of and pride in what the community has built. The Cuban Jewish story is similar to that of many post-Communist countries: Judaism almost disappeared, only to be reborn with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That rebuilding, aided by JDC, has been carried out through the blood, sweat, and tears of the community.  

Havdalah itself commemorates and honors the work we do in the world, whereas Shabbat famously allows for our abstention from labor. The rabbis of the Talmud sought to understand why the havdalah ceremony contained its specific components — the wine, the spices, the braided candle. One of its more interesting moments is that upon lighting the candle, we do not say the prayer connected to most other moments of candle lighting: “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu Melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel … Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us in the mitzvot and commanded us to light the candle of…” The reason is simple: We are not commanded to light a candle at this moment in the same way we are commanded to light a candle at the onset of Shabbat. So, instead, we say something different: “Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu Melech ha’olam, borai me’orah ha’aish … Blessed are you Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who creates the lights of fire.” 

Volunteers decorate the Patronato Synagogue in Havana for Chanukah.

The Rabbis wondered why we recite this blessing, and in Genesis Rabbah, a midrashic collection, they offer a powerful explanation. After Adam had been created, he greatly feared what would happen the first time the sun set. To assuage Adam’s fear, God found him two flints. Adam realized that if he struck them against each other, sparks would emerge and those sparks could turn into fire. With that, Adam created the first fire, offering that same blessing we recite during havdalah.

This isn’t just the first time fire is created. It’s also the first time a human creates … anything. So far, in the story of creation, God has been defined through the creative acts that bring the world into existence — but now the first human learns that he, too, is capable of similar creativity.  

For me, there is something so powerful and significant that during havdalah, when we are permitted to start working again, we celebrate it with an action that replicates that first creative act. It brings me back to the joy of havdalah itself. After our rest, we celebrate the fact that we are back in the world, in all of its messy complications.

That’s what I felt in Havana and what sticks with me today: the joy the community finds in what they have constructed. Just as Adam brought together two flints to start a fire, the Cuban Jewish community built itself up and continues to build today — undoubtedly, cause for celebration.

Rabbi Joshua Mikutis is the Jewish Learning Designer at JDC Entwine.

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