As part of Havdalah we recite a blessing over fire and gaze at our fingernails in its light. This is because fire was first discovered on a Motzei Shabbat.1 When the sun set and it became dark at the conclusion of the first Shabbat, which was essentially Adam and Eve’s first day on earth, Adam was scared of the dark. At that point G-d showed Adam two rocks and told him to strike them together in order to make fire and thereby have light. He did so and when fire emerged he recited the blessing “…borei me’orai ha’aish.“2 There is a teaching that the fire that Adam discovered actually emerged from his fingernails.3 According to another account, G-d simply made a pillar of fire appear for Adam, at which time he recited the blessing “…borei me’orai ha’aish.“4
Some gaze at their fingernails before reciting the blessing on the fire5 while others do so after reciting the blessing.6 In some families, the cup of wine is moved to the left hand while one gazes at the fingernails of the right hand.7 The cup is then returned to the right hand for the conclusion of Havdalah.8 In other families, the cup of wine is put down when reciting the blessing on the fire and spices.
One should bend the fingernails onto the palm of one’s hand, thereby allowing the fingernails and palm to be seen at once.9 The thumb should be “hidden” beneath the bent fingers.10 Some have the custom to then turn their hand over, stretch out their fingers, and gaze upon the fingernails once more. One should not look at the bottom of one’s fingers during Havdalah.11 Some have the custom to repeat the procedure with the left hand,12 though, according to Kabbalah, one should not do so.13 There is a custom to meditate upon the verse “You shall see My back but My face shall not be seen” when gazing upon one’s fingernails.14
The primary reason that we gaze at our fingernails as part of the blessing over the fire is to ensure that we benefit somehow from the light of the fire.15 The benefit, in this context, is the ability to distinguish between the fingernails and the skin by the light of the fire.16 We are not permitted to recite the blessing on the candle if we are too far away to derive any substantial benefit from its light.17 Gazing upon our fingernails also recalls that Adam’s body was covered with a protective fingernail-like substance until he ate from the forbidden fruit. It was from that time onwards that clothing became the manner in which we protect ourselves from the elements.18 There is also a mystical teaching that on Motzei Shabbat harmful spirits roam the world and try to seize people. Gazing upon one’s fingernails by the light of the Havdalah candle is said to protect oneself from these forces.19
While looking at our hands and fingernails, we should ponder the fact that over the course of Shabbat our hands rested from forbidden work, which now becomes permitted once again.20 It is taught that looking at one’s fingernails, a part of the body that is continually growing, is a segula for growth and prosperity in the coming week.21 There is a widespread practice to shut off the lights in the room when reciting Havdalah in order for the light of the candle to dominate.22