Between Holy and Mundane: The Development of the Term Havdalah
Physical Separation (P)
In the Priestly creation story (Gen 1:1–2:4a), God creates the universe by distinguishing between its constituent parts, using the verb לְהַבְדִּיל (lehavdil). The first instance is after God creates light:
בראשית א:ד ...וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ. א:ה וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה...
Gen 1:4 …and God separated the light from the darkness. 1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night….
The term is also used to explain the function of the firmament as separating between the waters below and above, a concept that may derive from the author’s familiarity with Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation epic, in which Marduk “splits” Tiamat into two parts, from one of which he creates the firmament, and the waters of the sky(4.137–138).
Elsewhere in the Priestly text, the term לְהַבְדִּיל refers to physical separation. Exodus describes the function of the curtain (parokhet) in the Tabernacle’s inner sanctum:
שמות כו:לג ...וְהִבְדִּילָה הַפָּרֹכֶת לָכֶם בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים.
Exod 26:33 …The curtain shall separate for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies.
The term is also used in Leviticus to describe the laws of how to tear sacrificial birds without detaching their wings or heads; there it is best transalted “sever.”
Cultic Distinction (H)
In texts from the Holiness School, the term is used to describe the abstract notion of cultic separation. This can be seen in how the Holiness School reworked the prohibition against consuming unclean animals found also in Deuteronomy.
For example, Deuteronomy 14 (D) forbids the consumption of taboo animals considered to be תּוֹעֵבָה “disgusting.” A parallel set of laws in Leviticus 11 contains an addendum from the scribes of the Holiness School (vv. 43–45), which explains that Israel needs to be holy:
ויקרא יא:מז לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהֹר וּבֵין הַחַיָּה הַנֶּאֱכֶלֶת וּבֵין הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא תֵאָכֵל.
Lev 11:27 To distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.
This framing reflects the way in which the (post-exilic) Holiness School divides the world into binary categories. Later in the Holiness Collection proper (Lev 17–26), the distinction between clean and unclean animals is repeated, and placed in the midst of verses that describe how YHWH has divided between Israel and all other nations:
ויקרא כ:כד ...אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הִבְדַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים. כ:כה וְהִבְדַּלְתֶּם בֵּין הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהֹרָה לַטְּמֵאָה וּבֵין הָעוֹף הַטָּמֵא לַטָּהֹר וְלֹא תְשַׁקְּצוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם בַּבְּהֵמָה וּבָעוֹף וּבְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר הִבְדַּלְתִּי לָכֶם לְטַמֵּא. כ:כו וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן הָעַמִּים לִהְיוֹת לִי.
Lev 20:24 …I YHWH am your God who has distinguished you from other peoples. 20:25 So you shall distinguish the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have designated as unclean for you. 20:26 You shall be holy to Me, for I YHWH am holy, and I have distinguished you from other peoples to be Mine.
Just as clean animals, i.e., selected for use as food and offerings (YHWH’s food), must be distinguished from the unclean, Israel, the nation chosen by YHWH to be holy, must be distinguished from the regular, unselected nations.
Job of the Priests
As Israel’s permanent priesthood, it is the job of Aaron and his sons to maintain the distinction between clean and unclean/holy and mundane. Thus, Aaron is told that it is forbidden to drink alcohol when serving in the Tabernacle:
ויקרא י:ט יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל תֵּשְׁתְּ אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ בְּבֹאֲכֶם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְלֹא תָמֻתוּ חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם. י:י וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַקֹּדֶשׁ וּבֵין הַחֹל וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא וּבֵין הַטָּהוֹר.
Lev 10:9 Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout the ages, 10:10 So that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.
Ensuring that the holy and mundane, the clean and the unclean, remain distinct, priests need to make their cultic decisions while sober. The importance of this aspect of the priests’ work is emphasized in the book of Ezekiel—a book infused with the Priestly (and Holiness) worldview. It blames the destruction of the Temple in part on the priests’ lack of making this important distinction:
יחזקאל כב:כו כֹּהֲנֶיהָ חָמְסוּ תוֹרָתִי וַיְחַלְּלוּ קָדָשַׁי בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחֹל לֹא הִבְדִּילוּ וּבֵין הַטָּמֵא לְטָהוֹר לֹא הוֹדִיעוּ וּמִשַׁבְּתוֹתַי הֶעְלִימוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וָאֵחַל בְּתוֹכָם.
Ezek 22:26 Her priests have violated My Teaching: they have profaned what is sacred to Me, they have not distinguished between the sacred and the profane, they have not taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have closed their eyes to My sabbaths. I am profaned in their midst.
The separation of the world into dichotomous pairs, both physically and cultically, is at the heart of the Havdalah blessing, recited by Jews at the end of every Sabbath and Festival, to mark the transition from a holy day to a regular day:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל, בֵּין אוֹר לְחֹשֶׁךְ, בֵּין יִשְׂרָאֵל לָעַמִּים, בֵּין יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי לְשֵׁשֶׁת יְמֵי הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי, הַמַּבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who distinguishes the holy from the mundane, light from darkness, Israel from the nations, the seventh day from the six days of toil. Blessed are You, O Lord, who distinguishes holy from mundane.
This blessing is the conceptual outgrowth of the Priestly and Holiness worldviews.
Lehavdil's Older Meaning
In the pre-exilic sources of the Torah, the term להבדיל does not mean “to separate or distinguish,” but to “select or appoint.” In describing the law of the refuge cities, the (mostly) pre-exilic book of Deuteronomy writes:
דברים יט:ב שָׁלוֹשׁ עָרִים תַּבְדִּיל לָךְ בְּתוֹךְ אַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 19:2 You shall select three cities in the land that YHWH your God is giving you to possess.
The meaning here is not about separating these cities from other cities, but designating these cities as refuge cities. The term, in this usage, means “to select, to assign something,” what I would call a “logical” or “concrete” usage. Translations such as Targum Onkelos’ תַּפְרֵישׁ (“separate”), KJV’s “thou shalt separate three cities for thee” or ArtScroll’s “you shall separate three cities for yourselves,” are forcing the later meaning of the term into this context.
The Noun Form of the Root
We can understand the meaning of term better when we look at the noun form of the root. The verb לְהַבְדִּיל is in the hiphʿil (causative) form, meaning that it is causing someone/something to be badal. The root ב.ד.ל is used in two nominal forms. The first appears only once in the Bible, in the context of how few Israelites will escape the ensuing destruction of Samaria:
עמוס ג:יב כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה כַּאֲשֶׁר יַצִּיל הָרֹעֶה מִפִּי הָאֲרִי שְׁתֵּי כְרָעַיִם אוֹ בְדַל אֹזֶן כֵּן יִנָּצְלוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּשֹׁמְרוֹן בִּפְאַת מִטָּה וּבִדְמֶשֶׁק עָרֶשׂ.
Amos 3:12 Thus said YHWH: As a shepherd rescues from the lion’s jaws two shank bones or the badal of an ear, so shall the Israelites escape who dwell in Samaria—with the leg of a bed or the head of a couch.
The exact translation of badal here is unclear—HALOT suggests “tiny part” while the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew offers “piece.” Nevertheless, its general connotation is clear: only a little part of the ear will survive the ravagings of the lion.
The root also appears in the noun בָּדִיל, meaning slag. For instance, in the opening chapter of Isaiah, YHWH says to Judah states:
ישעיה א:כה וְאָשִׁיבָה יָדִי עָלַיִךְ וְאֶצְרֹף כַּבֹּר סִיגָיִךְ וְאָסִירָה כָּל בְּדִילָיִךְ.
Isa 1:25 I will turn My hand against you, and smelt out your dross has with lye, and remove all your slag.
Slag/dross is the part of the metal that is left over after smelting. The term is thus semantically related to the previous noun “piece.” So, to cause someone to be badal means to remove them from a larger unit and make them independent of it.
Singling Out People
When Moses warns Israel of the terrible consequences that will befall any person or even tribe that turn to idolatry, Deuteronomy again uses the term in the sense of “to designate” or “single out”:
דברים כט:כ וְהִבְדִּילוֹ יְ־הוָה לְרָעָה מִכֹּל שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל...
Deut 29:20 YHWH will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune…
Here we do have the preposition “from” (מִ), which is usually associated with the later meaning “to separate X from Y,” but here, the point is not that YHWH will distinguish between two abstract categories—punished and unpunished—but that YHWH will single out the wicked tribe from the rest of Israel to be punished.
Post-Exilic “Logical” Usage
We still find this earlier meaning of lehavdil as “to select, appoint, designate” in later, post-exilic texts. For example, when Ezekiel speaks of the myriads of people that will be killed in the war of Gog and Magog, he writes:
יחזקאל לט:יד וְאַנְשֵׁי תָמִיד יַבְדִּילוּ עֹבְרִים בָּאָרֶץ מְקַבְּרִים אֶת הָעֹבְרִים אֶת הַנּוֹתָרִים עַל פְּנֵי הָאָרֶץ לְטַהֲרָהּ...
Ezek 39:14 And they shall appoint men to serve permanently, to traverse the land and bury any invaders who remain above ground, in order to cleanse it…
This form appears in the even later book of Chronicles, in which David appoints certain prophets to serve in the future Temple:
דברי הימים א כה:א וַיַּבְדֵּל דָּוִיד וְשָׂרֵי הַצָּבָא לַעֲבֹדָה לִבְנֵי אָסָף וְהֵימָן וִידוּתוּן הנביאים [הַנִּבְּאִים] בְּכִנֹּרוֹת בִּנְבָלִים וּבִמְצִלְתָּיִם...
1 Chron 25:1 David and the officers of the army appointed for service the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied to the accompaniment of lyres, harps, and cymbals…
The key feature of this meaning is that it focuses on persons or objects appointed on their own terms, and not as they relate to others.
Appointment of Levites: From Deuteronomic to Priestly Usage
We can see the beginning of the semantic and conceptual development of lehavdil from “appointing” to “separating” when comparing how the appointment of the Levites is described in Deuteronomy vs. the Priestly text in Numbers.
In Deuteronomy, only the Levites are mentioned, and the term has the simple connotation of “appointment” or “designation”:
דברים י:ח בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל יְ־הוָה אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 10:8 At that time, YHWH designated the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon YHWH, and to bless in His name, as is still the case.
In Numbers, however, the same appointment is described using the verb in a comparative sense, distinguishing one group from another, using the preposition מִ “from.” In this text, Moses is to perform a ritual which exchanges the Levites for the firstborn Israelites, who would otherwise have been dedicated to YHWH as priests:
במדבר ח:יד וְהִבְדַּלְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם.
Num 8:14 Thus you shall distinguish the Levites from the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine.
The connotation is, therefore, more than just a simple appointment, but it emphasizes the difference between Levites, who will now be permanent servants at the Tabernacle, and the rest of Israel, who will no longer be required to serve at all.
Isolation from Foreign Elements: The Niphʿal Form in Ezra-Nehemiah
The root ב.ד.ל undergoes further development in the late biblical book Ezra-Nehemiah, where we see the emergence of the niphʿal form, with a new meaning, “to be separated from, to be isolated.” For example, when the Judean returnees celebrate Pesach (Passover):
עזרא ו:כא וַיֹּאכְלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַשָּׁבִים מֵהַגּוֹלָה וְכֹל הַנִּבְדָּל מִטֻּמְאַת גּוֹיֵ הָאָרֶץ אֲלֵהֶם לִדְרֹשׁ לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Ezra 6:21 The children of Israel who had returned from the exile, together with all who joined them in isolating themselves from the uncleanliness of the nations of the lands to worship YHWH God of Israel, ate of it.
This is not about an abstract distinction between Israelite and non-Israelite, but about active separation and avoidance of the other.
Similarly, after a large sacrificial ceremony, Ezra is told that many of the people, including priests and Levites, have not isolated themselves (לֹא נִבְדְּלוּ) from the local population. Ezra responds by tearing his clothes in mourning, and speaking to the people about how terrible a sin this is, and the people then agree to separate from their foreign wives; Ezra then makes them swear to this.
In Nehemiah as well, after the Torah-reading ceremony, the Israelites isolated themselves from all foreign elements:
נחמיה ט:ב וַיִּבָּדְלוּ זֶרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכֹּל בְּנֵי נֵכָר וַיַּעַמְדוּ וַיִּתְוַדּוּ עַל חַטֹּאתֵיהֶם וַעֲוֹנוֹת אֲבֹתֵיהֶם.
Neh 9:2 Those of the stock of Israel isolate themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
The use of the root in the niphʿal here is an intensification of the Priestly concept of Israel’s holiness; if Israel has been chosen from amongst the nations to be YHWH’s special people, they must isolate themselves from these other people.
“Isolate Yourselves” in Numbers
The niphʿal, with the meaning “isolate yourself” appears once in the Torah, in the story of Korah’s rebellion, in which YHWH warns Moses and Aaron to move away from the camp so that it could be destroyed without risk to them:
במדבר טז:כא הִבָּדְלוּ מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם כְּרָגַע.
Num 16:21 Separate yourselves from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!
Here the verb is not about moral or ethnic separation between types of people, but a simple physical separation to avoid being harmed. Notably, this verse is part of what Israel Knohl of Hebrew University has argued to be a very late redactional layer, meant to weld together two different rebellion stories.
Moral Separation from God: Hiphʿil in Trito-Isaiah
Perhaps in reaction to the niphʿal term, the hiphʿil term experiences some further development. Trito-Isaiah (Isa 55–66), a late compilation of different sources which makes up the final section of the book of Isaiah, uses the hiphʿil term to express the negative imagery of someone being separated or isolated from God.
For example, one verse expresses a non-Israelite’s fear that YHWH will not accept him:
ישעיה נו:ג וְאַל יֹאמַר בֶּן הַנֵּכָר הַנִּלְוָה אֶל יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר הַבְדֵּל יַבְדִּילַנִי יְ־הוָה מֵעַל עַמּוֹ...
Isa 56:3 Let not the foreigner say, who has attached himself to YHWH, “YHWH will surely keep me separated from His people”….
The text goes on to promise that any foreigner who loves YHWH and wishes to serve him, who keeps Shabbat and the covenant, will be permitted to go to the Jerusalem Temple, to offer sacrifices and worship YHWH along with the Israelites. The passage is polemical in nature, countering the idea found in Ezra-Nehemiah, which uses the niphʿal form of the verb to claim that Israel must isolate themselves from non-Israelites, and that the latter group has no place in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Anatomy of Separation: A Diachronic View
In the pre-exilic period, the verb lehavdil meant to “appoint or select.” During the exilic period, the verb began to take on the connotation of “to separate between X and Y.” In the Priestly text, we see this used to describe physical separation of two objects, but in the later Holiness text, the term began to express cultic separation, reflecting a priestly view of how the world was ordered, including Israel’s special place in it as distinct from other nations.
Perhaps inspired by this concept, a new, niphʿal verb form developed (lehibbadel), which expressed the need for Israel to physically separate (or isolate) themselves from other nations, a concept against which Trito-Isaiah pushes back, claiming that non-Israelites who worship YHWH will not be separated (lehavdil) from YHWH and his Temple.
Over time, the two verb forms—niphʿal (lehibbadel) and hiphʿil (lehavdil)—began to cross-pollinate, with one verb form used to express the meaning generally associated with the other.
Causing Someone to be Separated
The book of Nehemiah uses the hiphʿil to express “causing someone to be isolated.” After the Judeans read the part of the Torah forbidding marriage with Ammonites and Moabites, the people agree to separate any such element from their families:
נחמיה יג:ג וַיְהִי כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת הַתּוֹרָה וַיַּבְדִּילוּ כָל עֵרֶב מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
Neh 13:3 When they heard the Teaching, they removed all the alien admixture from Israel.
The hiphʿil here mimics the meaning and ideology we see in the rest of Ezra-Nehemiah, where the niphʿal is consistently used.
The Niphʿal Expressing “Appoint”
In the book of Chronicles, the niphʿal is used to express what the hiphʿil originally meant, “to appoint”:
דברי הימים א כג:יג ...וַיִּבָּדֵל אַהֲרֹן לְהַקְדִּישׁוֹ קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים הוּא וּבָנָיו עַד עוֹלָם לְהַקְטִיר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד עוֹלָם.
1 Chron 23:13 …Aaron was appointed, to be consecrated as most holy, he and his sons forever, to make burnt offerings to YHWH and serve Him and pronounce blessings in His name forever.
The verse expresses here the same idea we saw in Deuteronomy about the appointment of the Levites, but applied to Aaron. While the grammatical form is niphʿal, and the verb is passive, the meaning here is not “to isolate” or even “to separate” but “to appoint.”
In sum, as language developed, later scribes, unaware that the niphʿal and hiphʿil terms had distinct meanings, began to use them indiscriminately.
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Dr. Attila Marossy holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament Theology from the Faculty of Protestant Theology, University of Vienna, and an M.A. in Hebrew Studies from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, where he is Recurring Visiting Instructor at the Department of Assyriology and Hebrew, and the project coordinator of the Faculty’s Wikipedia project called HebraWiki, whose mission is to publish quality articles in Hungarian related to Biblical and Jewish Studies. Marrosy is also a pastor in the Lutheran Church of Hungary. His dissertation is titled, The Anatomy of Separation: Priestly Dichotomies and their Development in the Hebrew Bible (2017).
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