A Havdalah rituals for when a marriage comes apart

Naomi, one member of our Jewish women’s group, asked us for a ceremony to mark her separation from her husband Joseph. Naomi and Joseph [their names have been changed here] had been married for 19 years, and in the past several years conflicts between them had escalated to the point where Naomi felt that it was not possible for her to continue in the marriage. She chose to mark the occasion of their moving to separate residences with a ceremony.

The Princeton Rosh Hodesh Group had been meeting regularly to mark Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of each month of the Hebrew calendar. We create and participate in new rituals, particularly to help each other make life transitions of all kinds.

Linda Oppenheimer, Shoshana Silber and I created the ceremony. I had spoken with Naomi at length about her decision, and I drew on this knowledge in preparing the ceremony. She herself did not participate in constructing the ritual, except to let me know that she was open to whatever our creativity produced.

We took a long time developing the themes and symbols that we finally used here, and many ideas were discarded in the process. We chose to use and reinterpret the symbols of havdalahy the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday night—the wine, the spices, and the candle—along with a plant, to enable Naomi to mark this transition to a new phase of her life.

About twelve of us gathered in a living room to conduct the ceremony. I served as the leader, with everyone taking part. It was a moving experience for all of us, and we reproduce it here for other women’s groups to use or adapt.

We began with an abbreviated Ma ‘ariv (Evening) service so that another member of the group could say Kaddish for her daughter. We used the Reconstructionist prayer book, Kol Ha’Neshamah, with Marcia Falk’s alternative Amidah, from which we selected poems and blessings. We sang the blessings in Hebrew and English, using Faith Rogow’s tune for “As We Bless.” (This tune is on her tape “The Courage to Dare.”) The readings introduced the themes of endings, separation, and death, setting the tone for the ceremony that followed.

We sang a simple niggun which I’d written, a tune without words, which was meant to be wistful, sad, a little joyous, kind of a comforting lullaby when sung softly and slowly.

Lighting two candles, we poured wine for all, and recited three blessings together.

This part was very difficult for Naomi. She said later that she was surprised, and relieved, to realize that she might imagine “the One” as being involved in her decisions to marry and to divorce—she had previously felt solely responsible, and blamed herself for the outcome. We sang the niggun again at this point, to give Naomi a chance to collect herself

We wanted to give Naomi an opportunity to talk about her marriage, to tell its story to the group and to herself I had included in the ceremony text the prompts listed below so that each of us could help Naomi reconstruct the history of the marriage and reflect on it. I gave a brief introduction to this part of the ritual and then asked the first question.

When you met what was the
Courtship and decision to marry
Wedding/early years/birth of
Moment(s) of greatest joy
and sadness
What has made you the most
Regret what you feel you could
have done differently
What was your Jewish life like?
Turning points; looking back,
when were they?
How have you changed since the
beginning of this relationship?
What do you know now that you
wish you had known then?

The rest unfolded easily and naturally for about half an hour. Naomi said later that it had felt important for her both to affirm for herself and also to share with us the things that had been positive about the marriage. As a group, we knew more about the pain and frustration that we had seen her experience than about the richness and excitement that had once been present in the relationship.

Once we had reached a natural stopping place, each person was asked to choose one of the small natural objects from the table and place it in the ceramic pot. I had earlier asked Naomi to bring something symbolizing her marriage to burn. She brought a copy of her marriage license that she had carried for many years as identification. She placed it in the bowl along with the fragrant wood chips, and lit them with both of the candles. We all watched quietly for several minutes while the certificate and the wood chips gradually turned to ash. While everything was burning, Naomi repeated the passage below phrase by phrase after me:

Naomi S., affirm that I have
chosen, with sorrow and with
anger, with regret and with
relief, to end my marriage to
Joseph B. Before we were
joined; as of now, we are
separated. Before, we shared
our home; now, we live in
separate homes. I leave behind
me forever my married life with
Joseph. I look ahead to a new
life for myself, a life that will
grow from the sweetness and the
bitterness of our marriage.

Blessed is the One who separates
and makes distinctions. 

Blessed one who enables us to
make transformations and new

This was the emotional climax of the ceremony.

We mixed the ashes of the marriage certificate and the wood chips with potting soil and the objects in the pot, and we then placed the plant into the soil. I had originally imagined that Naomi would do this herself, but members of the group very spontaneously did it for her, and Naomi said later that it comforted her to have people take care of her in this way.

We ended by chanting our opening niggun again as we moved to a larger open space in the room. We stood in a close circle, with Naomi in the center. We had planned to do a kind of “trust fall,” in which a person is literally handed from and supported by one person after another around the circle. Instead, we found ourselves growing quiet, hugging and slowly rocking Naomi as a group. We gradually stepped back from her, and she hugged each of us individually as we again sang our niggun and “As We Bless.” We lingered in the spell of the moment, all of us bound together.

Ruth Berger Goldston a member of a Princeton New Jersey Rosh Hodesh group is a psychotherapist and former Chair of the National Havurah Committee. A version of this article appeared in the Spring 1993 issue of Lilith.