Many Jews stand for Kiddush and Havdalah. Others sit for both. Some recite Kiddush standing and Havdalah sitting. Others do the reverse. Some stand for Kiddush at night but sit for Kiddush the next day. Others stand for only part of Kiddush. How is one to make sense of such a dizzying variety of minhagim?
Before the 16th century, it appears that the standard practice was to sit for Kiddush. The Rambam writes that one stands for Kiddush on the first nights of Sukkot (Hilchot Sukkah 6:12) – implying that one sits for every other Kiddush during the year. Most Rishonim actually disagree with the Rambam and hold that even Kiddush on Sukkot should be recited while seated (e.g., Raavad ad loc., and Rosh, Sukkah 4:3).
For Havdalah, though, medieval Ashkenazim, stood. Several Rishonim explain that we stand in order to honor the departing Sabbath Queen. But based on this logic, one should stand for Kiddush as well. If we stand to escort the queen out, surely we should stand when she comes in! The Kol Bo (41) answers that, fundamentally, a person should, indeed, stand for Kiddush. The reason we sit is because Kiddush is linked to the Shabbat meal, which is eaten while seated (but see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 271).
Interestingly, Tosafot is unhappy even with the idea of standing for Havdalah (Berachot 43a s.v. “ho’il”). According to halacha, in order for a person to say borei pri ha’gafen (or ha’motzi) on behalf of others, the people present must form a formal group by sitting down together (or, in Talmudic times, reclining on couches). If so, wonders Tosafot, how can someone recite the berachah over the Havdalah wine on behalf of others if everyone is standing?
Tosafot suggests the following novel explanation: Borei pri ha’gafen during Havdalah is not a freestanding berachah; rather, it is an integral part of Havdalah. Therefore, since constituting a formal group is not necessary for one person to recite Havdalah for others, perhaps it is unnecessary for the ha’gafen berachah within it too. Nevertheless, Tosafot seems not to be entirely satisfied with this explanation and encourages sitting for Havdalah, even though doing so marks a departure from the prevailing practice.
Today, however, even Tosafot would agree that standing for Havdalah is acceptable since not everyone drinks from the Havdalah wine (unlike in the days of Tosafot when everyone did [see Beit Yitzchak vol. 40 p.95 n.3]). Nowadays, only the person making Havdalah does. Thus, forming a halachic group so that everyone is covered by the ha’gafen berachah is no longer necessary.
Furthermore, Tosafot’s opinion on the necessity of forming a group for one person’s ha’gafen to cover the obligation of another is a minority one. The Shulchan Aruch rules that, post facto, one person’s ha’gafen covers the obligation of others present even if they are all standing (Orach Chayim 167:13).
In the case of Kiddush, though, Tosafot’s arguments are valid even today (the Tosafists themselves do not mention Kiddush explicitly because it probably never occurred to them that anyone would stand for Kiddush). Since everyone today generally takes a sip of the Kiddush wine, all the assembled should apparently sit, at least lechatchila.
Bedi’eved, one could drink the Kiddush wine even if one heard Kiddush while standing (based on Tosafot’s suggested justification for standing during Havdalah as well as the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling). It goes without saying that, one has surely discharged one’s obligation to hear Kiddush whether one stood or sat for it (see Rema, Orach Chayim 271:10).
One has to wonder, though, why many people stand for Kiddush nowadays if the ancient practice was to sit and if halacha seems to call for sitting as well. We should note that the Kol Bo already suggested that standing for Kiddush would in theory be preferable. But it was the Arizal, the great 16th-century Kabbalist from Safed, who actually encouraged doing so (Kaf HaChaim 271:62). After his death, his Kabbalistic practices became popular, first among eastern Sefardic communities and then in Europe, especially with the rise of the chassidic movement.
Amazingly, even though the practice to stand for Kiddush apparently only began in earnest 400 years ago, it is widely prevalent today, with the older practice of sitting for Kiddush only found among non-chassidic Ashkenazim and Yemenites (and even in these communities there are exceptions).
Sefardim, as well as Ashkenazim of chassidic extraction, generally stand for Kiddush. Sefardic and chassidic practices diverge, however, when it comes to Havdalah. Chasidim retain the old Ashkenazic custom to stand whereas Sefardim sit. Apparently, the ancient Sefardic practice was to sit for Havdalah; the current Sefardic custom simply is a continuation of it. Yet, this custom is difficult to understand considering that the halachic basis for sitting for Kiddush is much stronger than the halachic basis for sitting for Havdalah.
Furthermore, Sefardim today are only particular that the person reciting Havdalah sit, not those listening, which was Tosafot’s primary concern. Interestingly, there is a minority practice among Ashkenazim nowadays that has everyone sitting during Havdalah, ostensibly in accord with the Vilna Gaon. (In actuality, the opinion of the Vilna Gaon on this matter is far from clear; see Maaseh Rav [5779 ed.] pp. 166ff.)
Customs regarding sitting or standing for Kiddush and Havdalah have clearly been very much in flux for the last several centuries. In contemporary times, people generally cling tenaciously to their fathers’ or teachers’ practices. But consider for a moment the common case of an Ashkenazi Jew of chassidic extraction who has completely assimilated into the non-chassidic Ashkenazic community. Most likely, he or she will retain his or her family minhag to stand for Kiddush. But does it really make sense to do so when his or her other religious practices are not influenced by Kabbalah?
For such people, there might be room to permit reverting to the ancient practice of sitting for Kiddush. On the flip side, there are many people nowadays who voluntarily embrace chassidic teachings; perhaps they should be allowed to begin standing for Kiddush. A halachic authority should be consulted.
We should emphasize that those who encourage standing for Kiddush only do so in regards to the nighttime Kiddush, when one greets the Sabbath Queen. (Tosafot’s suggested justification for standing during Havdalah also would only apply to the evening Kiddush, when there are two linked berachos). All classical halachic and Kabbalistic sources agree that one should sit for the daytime Kiddush, which fundamentally is simply a blessing over wine. Nevertheless, some Ashkenazim who stand for Havdalah and Kiddush at night also now do so for the daytime Kiddush as well.
In regards to Kiddush at night: Some who sit do so for its entirety (perhaps with the exception of the first four words, which represent God’s name, see Rema, Orach Chayim 271:10), whereas some stand while reciting the introductory paragraph of Vayechulu (Shulchan Aruch, ad loc.). This latter group of people maintains that reciting Vayechulu is tantamount to testifying that God created the world, and halacha dictates that testimony be given while standing.
There are no real halachic ramifications to either practice since reciting Vayechulu is only a custom and not a mandatory part of saying Kiddush. However, it does seem that the older practice is to sit even for Vayechulu.
The bottom line: It appears that the original custom was to sit for Kiddush, and probably for Havdalah as well. Already in the times of the Rishonim, the Ashkenazic custom was to recite Havdalah standing in honor of the departing Shabbat. After the 16th century, Sefardim and chassidim adopted the Kabbalistic practice of standing for the nighttime Kiddush, although Sefardim retained their original practice to sit for Havdalah. At an even later point, some Ashkenazim began standing for the daytime Kiddush as well. It should be noted that even if one stands for Kiddush or Havdalah, one should sit before drinking the wine.