Pass the peace.
The phrase stirs something within me. The feeling isn’t linked to hands clasping across pews on Sunday mornings. No, it stirs something much deeper. Something ancient.
Pass the peace floods my mind with visions of myrtle bouquets passing with care around the room, from the wrinkled hands of grandparents to the chubby fists of toddlers, from the soft hands of students to the calloused ones of parents. Each person cradling the fragrant sprigs with eyes closed, inhaling slowly, deeply—as if committing to memory every note of the sweet aroma—before placing it into the expectant hands beside them.
This ritual is the heart of Havdalah, the ancient Jewish farewell-to-the-sabbath service. An intimate time of worship that usually unfolds within the warmth of home. Everything about it feels magical, even its timing: beginning just as it grows dark enough for three stars to be seen in the dusky sky. That exact moment marks the departure of Queen Sabbath—as the day of rest is beautifully named. And our farewell to her is a parade of the senses.
Havdalah begins with the pouring of wine—that Jewish symbol of joy—until it overflows its challis. The saucer waiting underneath collects the excess as it spills over, a visual picture of the fact that our cup really does “runneth over” as we emerge from holy rest. The wine drips and shimmers as we join our voices in proclamation of God’s abundance:
“With joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
“There was light and joy, gladness and honor—so let it be with us!”
And then, with joy pooling in the saucer and ringing in our ears, the fragrant besamin—spices—take center stage. Nowadays, this treasure is often held in silver filigree, beautiful yet airy containers that allow the aroma to waft throughout the room. Like my grandma’s little silver turret with its tiny hinged door and dainty silver flag waving from the very top. Almost everyone’s Bubbe had one just like it. I loved to envision the besamin inside as a beautiful princess, adored by all, waiting in her gilded tower to be loved. Like Rapunzel. And whether it was ancient myrtle, a cinnamon stick, or my sloppy Hebrew school craft of a clove-studded orange, the fragrance of holy rest always held the room entranced.
The spell only deepens as the braided Havdalah candle ignites, its flames dancing and reflecting in the pool of wine. The intertwined wicks serve to remind us that we’re all united in the one who calls us into his joy and rest. Honestly, the culmination of these multi-sensory moments always felt about as close to heaven as I could possibly imagine as a child. Every sense crackled with expectation, and time seemed suspended as we were filled with wonder together.
But then. Even as “amens” still linger on our lips and fragrance lingers in our lungs, the fiery wicks are plunged into the pool of wine, extinguished just as suddenly as the sun’s last rays slipping below the horizon. Smoke mingles with myrtle, and the moment is gone. The spell is broken. I always know it is coming, yet it never fails to catch me by surprise. Abruptly severed from the wonder that had filled the room only moments before. Unentranced.
I suppose this only makes sense, of course. After all, the word havdalah literally means “separation” or “distinction,” which is precisely what this ritual is meant to emphasize: to help us distinguish between light and dark, between rest and work, between the holy and the mundane. Even though we know the separation is coming, a bit of an ache, a wistfulness, settles in as Queen Sabbath takes her leave. Thankfully, she doesn’t exit with a slamming door, but with a tender “I’ll be back.”
Her last look at us is a wink because one day we won’t say goodbye. One day—the rabbis explain—when the Messiah comes to reign on earth, all will be sabbath. We’ll never have to bid sabbath farewell because peace and rest will never leave us. It will permeate everything endlessly: the eternal reality of Havdalah’s momentary enchantment. Peace will be complete, and so will we.
Pass the peace.
But until that final day of shalom, maybe Havdalah can teach us how to savor the sabbath. To leave it behind with a sigh of melancholy. To work ourselves free from the tendency to extinguish rest abruptly in the dregs of busyness. After all, if I’m eager to say goodbye to the sabbath, was I ever truly captivated by her?
I want to be so enchanted with Queen Sabbath that I treasure her presence. Choose to linger in it. To pause and slowly breathe in the promise of shalom, holding its fragrance deep inside, so that I can’t help but exhale shalom into the lives around me.
Pass the peace.
Without a doubt, that ancient Havdalah ritual seemed to pull heaven right down to earth, enveloping me in wonder. I could taste and see and smell and hear that God was good. I know it even more deeply today, and it still captivates me.
In fact, sometimes on a Saturday night, I’ll still take one of my grandma’s spice boxes off the shelf, cupping it in my hands. I am drawn to the one shaped like a violin, it holds a cinnamon stick and a wrapped lemon drop she’d placed inside so many years ago. I treasure it, recalling those moments of being mesmerized together. And then time stands still while the sun slips away, and I remember the sights and smells and sounds and tastes of Havdalah, and also the touch of her hand as she placed the spices in mine. I imagine what it will be like to engage the heavenly Lord of the sabbath with every one of my senses. And to never have to pass the peace again because peace himself will never leave.
Cover image by Paul Wong.