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Why do we gaze at our fingernails to the light of the havdalah candle?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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We look at our nails during Havdalah because1 :

a. In order to make the brachah on the candle, it must be close and bright enough for us to be able to see its different shades of light. If the candlelight is sufficient enough to discern the fingernails from the skin of the fingers, then the brachah may be recited.

The midrash says that the original fire emanated from Adam's fingernails!
b. Nails are a 'siman brachah' (a 'symbol of blessing') because they are constantly growing. So we start off our week by gazing at a 'siman brachah.'

c. The Midrash says that the original fire emanated from Adam's fingernails.

d. Another Midrash says that on the first Motzoei Shabbos, when the world became dark for the first time, Adam said "woe is to me, for because of my sin the world has become dark." G-d then gave Adam the wisdom to rub two flint-stones together, and when fire sprang forth Adam made the blessing (Borey Meoray Ha'aish), and realized that he was completely naked – aside from his nails.

Footnotes

  • 1. Tur Orach Chaim 298:3 b.c.d., and also can be found in Taamei Haminhagim Shabbat 414
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Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Adam
The first man, created by G-d on the sixth day of creation. He was banished from the Garden of Eden after eating from the forbidden fruit of the forbidden knowledge. Died in 2830 BCE.
Havdalah
Prayer signifying the end of the Sabbath or Jewish holiday. This "separation" prayer is recited after nightfall over a cup of wine.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.