A Ritual for Separating

woman waving hand - goodbye, bag isolated

I wanted a model which valued what had been and what was to be, while honoring the sadness of transition and loss.

by Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman

The following article was reprinted with permission from Ritualwell.org.

I wrote this ritual as part of a course in life cycle liturgy offered at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1986. Although I was physically living in Philadelphia during that period of my life, my psychological center was on the west coast, where I had always lived, and which held my lover, family, social network, and career ties. I spent as much time in California as I could manage without doing irreparable damage to my academic standing, so for me, this period held one painful parting after another.

In the course of those years, I was struck by how difficult each single separation was, and how little traditional wisdom existed to guide me in easing the disruptive and depressing emotional after-effects of the visits and vacations across country. In addition, I realized that my final leave-taking in June, would bring not only the joy of returning home, but also its own loss of my East Coast friends and community. It became clear to me that I wanted a Jewish ritual process with which to deal with my feelings.

I searched Jewish sources for material on separation: stories; rites; philosophic statements, Biblical accounts: – Eve and Adam’s expulsion from Eden; Abraham’s separation from Lot; Jacob and Joseph’s departures from their families; Orpah’s withdrawal from Naomi; Moses’ seclusion from the people of Israel. I looked over midrashic stories and Kabbalistic explanations of havdalah, the separation ceremony between Shabbat and the weekdays.

I wanted a model which was not fault-finding or blaming, which valued what had been and what was to be, while honoring the sadness of transition and loss. The central activity of the ritual is drawn from the story of the parting of the Biblical and Midrashic material I was most drawn to the story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31. Much of the liturgical and symbolic material is drawn from kabbalistic (mystical) celebrations of havdalah. I decided to use this as the central part of the rite and to surround it with Kabbalistic meanings.

In this ancient Genesis story, God tells Jacob to leave La[b]an’s camp, in which he as lived for twenty years, and return with his women to the land of his parents, Rebecca and Isaac. Jacob and his household flee without properly saying farewell to Laban.

Laban pursues them and confronts Jacob. He asks, “Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with music, with timbrel and lyre. You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-bye. It was a foolish thing to do.” Jacob explains that he was fearful of Laban’s displeasure at his leaving. So they agree to make a pact and build a pillar of stones as a witness to their agreement.

It was to this mound of tone in the tale that I was particularly attracted. Stones seem an appropriately material symbol with which to concretize such an abstract thing as a relationship. The initial parting in the story was overly hasty and thus did not show proper respect for the emotional gravity of the situation. The pillar of stones served to lengthen and solidify the metaphoric time of the leave-taking, for the stone mound remained as a physical witness of the relationship after the people had departed, yet eventually even the stones would slowly dislodge from their mound and become separate entities.

I found that stones are a common religious symbol. Sacred rocks exist in virtually every human culture and spiritual system. In the course of this work I became much more aware of stones, their shapes, colors, textures. I started picking them up at the beach and on hikes. Fortunately, I spent some time in Hawaii at this time, and noticed the folk practice of building small heaps of pebbles on heights overlooking the ocean. I was told that they serve as homes for wandering spirits.

Jewish tradition too tells of many sacred stones which serve as vessels for spiritual abstractions. The High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem wore a breastplate decorated with twelve holy stones, each one a representation of one of the tribes of Israel. Ancient Jewish worship frequently occurred at stone altars, and some rocks became associated with important mythic events such as the near sacrifice of Isaac or the covenant at Shechem. Indeed, even God is referred to metaphorically as Tzor Yisrael, the rock of Israel.

I believe it is the very quality of materiality which allows stone[s] to serve as such excellent images of spiritual concepts. It is in their nature to be “grounded,” and thus place boundaries on thoughts and feelings which might otherwise seem overwhelming. They are not physically representational and thus do not create stultifying images (containing, for example set notions of gender or age) in the course of providing boundaries and material solidity. They come in adequate variety to symbolically encase many moods and thoughts. A light blue stone may evoke the sky; a shiny black one may serve to bring up memories of a lover’s hair or skin. I decided that the nucleus of this separation ritual would be to build a pillar as had Jacob and Laban, but in this pillar each rock would be allowed to become a spiritual vessel containing a single memory or feeling.

Thus the primary act of the rite is setting up a small cairn of rock/memories to serve as a witness to the enduring nature of the relationship even after separation. As each participant sets a stone into the mound, she/he tells a thought or feeling (what the Hawaiians might call a wandering spirit) and allows it to find a home in the stone. As in the Biblical story, the mound endures and therefore symbolically tells of the enduring nature of memories and relationships.

Having decided on the main movement of the ritual, I needed to orchestrate its minor motifs, particularly the introduction and conclusion. The initial section of the ritual allows the participants to prepare themselves, to focus their attention on the ritual process, and to attune themselves to its therapeutic symbols. This part consists of lighting a havdalah candle, and setting out the stones, herbs, apples, and raisin cakes, and wine.

The havdalah candle with its braided wicks represents that which is separate coming together into one flame, and then becoming individuated again when the flame is extinguished. Herbs and wine are traditionally healing and are part of the havdalah ritual. Apples and raisin cakes are a Kabbalistic reference to Song of Songs 2:5, which reads, “sustain me with ashishot, refresh me with apples.” The Kabbalists recited this verse at havdalah and interpreted the Hebrew word, “ashishot ” to mean either “raisin cakes,” which is its traditional translation, or “multiple fires,” describing the flame of the havdalah candle and thus proclaiming the curative powers of its light. I have included both possibilities to ensure the doubly restorative nature of this ritual.

The transition between the introductory section of the rite and its symbolic core is a song, as is the transition to the concluding segment. The songs were selected to mirror the general theme of the ritual, that is, changes. The final part of the ritual is designed to soften the emotional release of the rite’s apogee, to actually provide restorative power through drinking wine and eating good food in the form of the apples and raisin cakes. [Its] purpose is to give healing, to summarize the intent of the ritual, and to establish closure. The summary is liturgically stated in a verse from Deuteronomy, “Blessed are you in your coming in and blessed are you in your going out.” The end of the ritual, its closure, is marked by the participants kissing each other good-bye as Laban kissed his daughters, and as Orpah kissed Naomi. The kiss signals that the time for parting is indeed at hand, while the standing mound tells of the import of what is left, and the consumed food provides sustenance for the journey.

We bless the source of life, creator of the light of fire.

Sustains me with lights. (Song of Songs 2:5)

The participants set out the cakes, the apples, the herbs, and the stones on cloths.


By Phil Ochs

Sit by my side, come as close as the air
Share in my memories of gray
Wander in my world
Dream about the pictures that I play of changes

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow they fade
Then the have to die
Trapped within the circle time parade of…

Scenes of my young years were warm in my mind
Visions of shadow that shine
Till one day I returned
And found they were the victims of the vines…

The world spinning madly it drifts through the dark
Swims through a hollow of haze
A trip around the stars
A journey through the universe ablaze with…

Movements of magic will glow in the night
All fears of the forest are gone
But when the morning breaks
They’re swept away by golden drops of dawn…

Passions will part to a strange melody
As fires will sometimes burn cold
Like petals in the wind
We’re puppets to the silver strings of soul of…

Your tears will be trembling now we’re somewhere else
One last cup of wine I will pour
I’ll kiss you one more time
And leave you on the rolling river shore of…

Pour the cup of wine.

Hafradah: A Separation Ritual

This ritual is designed for one to about ten celebrants. It is to pay respect and allow emotional release at the time of separations with beloveds. The ritual takes place outside at sunset. For the ritual you will need a havdalah candle, several sectioned apples, ten to thirty small pebbles chosen beforehand, some fragrant spices (sage is particularly good), a little wine, and enough raisin cakes or bread to feed the participants.

Participants gather and hum, chant, or sing niggunim outdoors as the sun sets and they prepare emotionally to enter sacred time.

The havdalah candle is lit and the participants say:
N’varekh m’kor chayim, borei m’orei ha-eish.
Samchuni ba-ashishot.
N’varekh m’kor chayim borei p’ri ha-gafen.

We bless the source of life, creator of the fruit of the vine.

One participant reads:

When Jacob and Laban parted they built a mound of stones to stand as a witness to their relationship and to their parting. We now make a mound of stones to be our witness.

Participants pick up several stones each. As the first person places her/his stone, she tells a memory or feeling about the relationship about to undergo separation. Each person does this until all the stones are placed and built into a mound and each person feels satisfied that her/his story has been sufficiently told. This part of the ritual should be given plenty of time for it gives the opportunity to establish continuity and express emotions.

After the mound is built each participant says:

Ha-gal ha-zeh eid beini u-veinkha ha-yom.
Ha-gal ha-zeh eid beini u-veinayich ha-yom.

This stone mound is a witness between me and you this day.
Yitzef Adonai beini u’veinekha ki nissatar ish meire’ei hu.
Yitzef Adonai beini u’veinayich ki nistarah ishah mei-re’eihah.

The Eternal will watch between me and you when we are absent from one another. (Gen 31:48-49).


Turn, Turn, Turn
Lyrics by Book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-8)
Music by Pete Seeger

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time for ev’ry purpose under heaven.

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

A time to build up… to break down
… to dance,… mourn.
… cast away stones
a time to gather – stones together.

… of war,… of peace
… love… hate
… you may embrace
… to refrain ­– from embracing.

… to gain,… lose
… rend,… sew
… love,… hate
… peace, I swear, it’s not too late.


At this writing, this ritual has been performed twice. Both times it went smoothly. I gathered the stones ahead of time and decided what to say with each one. However, I found that I had quite a lot of spontaneous outflow, as did the people with whom I celebrated. Tears also flowed freely.

However, as with any new creative ritual, this smooth flow was greatly facilitated by the fact that the ritual was celebrated by its author. Naturally, any other celebrant may modify it as she/he sees fit. It will be more meaningful the more the participants integrate their own needs and desires into its structure.

About the Author

Jane Litman 2012Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman is a senior congregational consultant with the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, serving over one hundred synagogues and havurot. She has been on the faculty of American Jewish University, California State University Northridge, Loyola Marymount University, and the California College of Integral Studies. She was the rabbi of gay outreach congregations Kol Simcha and Sha’ar Zahav, is an authority on moral education for diverse families, and has consulted with Jewish institutions, the Metropolitan Community Churches, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Council of Churches on the subject. Widely published in the fields of Jewish women’s history and contemporary theology, Rabbi Litman edited the award-winning Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life with Rabbi Debra Orenstein.

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