World of the Sages: Sweet scents

Our sages tell us that it is forbidden to benefit from this world without offering a blessing first.

October 24, 2007 09:55
incense judaism 88 224

incense judaism 88 224. (photo credit: )


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The Talmud seeks a source for the blessings recited over sweet scents and offers the final verse from Psalms: "Let every soul praise God" (Psalms 150:6). Focusing on the word soul, the Talmud explains: "What is something from which the soul derives pleasure but the body does not derive pleasure? It must be that this is referring to fragrant smells" (B. Berachot 43b). Indeed fragrances do not enter the body in a tangible form like food and drink. There is also no noticeable organ that is satiated by a scent. The nose doesn't tingle, the cheeks do not change color, a rumbling stomach is not quieted; we sense a fragrance deep in our innards. In fact the Hebrew word for smell - reiah - is of the same root as the word ruhani meaning spiritual, for a fragrant smell provides spiritual delight not physical pleasure (Rabbi Yehiel Michel Halevi Epstein, 19th century, Belorussia). Moreover, in the creation account, the Bible describes how the Almighty imparted life force to humans: "And God the Lord formed the human out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). The same orifice used for appreciating smells was the channel of entry for the divine soul to animate the physical form. Of course the question might be asked: We recite blessings over all manner of things - food and drink, seeing certain people, observing a flash of lightning, before the sounding of the shofar and upon hearing the rumble of thunder. According to Sholom Aleichem's Fiddler on the Roof, there is even a blessing over the tsar, naturally there should be a benediction over sweet fragrances. Furthermore, earlier in our tractate our sages tell us that it is forbidden to benefit from this world without offering a blessing first; deriving any pleasure without a benediction is akin to embezzlement of sanctified property (B. Berachot 35a). This statement appears to include deriving pleasures from aromas as well. What makes fragrances so unique that the Talmud needs to seek another source for the blessing requirement? One commentator reminds us that embezzlement from the Temple did not originally include sounds, sights and smells (B. Pesahim 26a). Thus the talmudic statement likening benefit without a blessing to misappropriation of property does not include fragrances and therefore we need a separate dictum to teach us of blessings over scents (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague). A different approach suggests that a blessing is offered by a physical movement of the lips, and therefore we might think that where the physical body does not benefit, there is no need to move the mouth. The talmudic passage tells us that even though a scent does not involve a noticeable physical action, it nevertheless should be preceded by a blessing uttered by moving the lips (Rabbi Ya'acov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, central Europe). A third, mystical approach focuses on the role of blessing in esoteric Jewish tradition. Since the sin in the Garden of Eden, every physical item is an admixture of good and evil. In this material world, we are charged with bringing out the good in physical objects. The recitation of a blessing is the first step in the process of harvesting the good that is encapsulated in the neutral food, elevating it from the level of the mundane to the realm of the holy. Once the food has been ingested, we can then complete the refining process by using the strength that we gain from the food for Torah and good deeds. Returning to the Garden of Eden account: All the senses except for one are mentioned - sight, touch, taste, hearing (see Genesis 3:6-8). Only the sense of smell is missing from this story. It appears that the sense of smell was not tainted in the Garden of Eden and remained in its original pure state, unsullied by sin. Thus the spiritual purity of scent is appropriate nourishment for the soul. It is for this reason that each Saturday night as our extra Shabbat soul departs with the end of the holy day, we smell sweet spices to revive our bereft, fragmented soul (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Given the untainted status of fragrances and of our olfactory powers, we would presume there is no need for the process of extracting the good from smells and hence a blessing is unnecessary. Our sages tell us that despite this assumption, there is nevertheless a need for a blessing over fragrances. We are after all physical beings and even sweet fragrances are carried by a material form, therefore they too require some process of clarification, albeit not to the same extent as food and beverages (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dynow, 19th century, Galicia). The power of scent is nonetheless of a different class to the other senses. According to Jewish esoteric tradition, the odors emitted by people reflect their iniquities (Zohar 3:186:1). Indeed, it is recounted that the holy kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), could identify people's sins according to their smell. Indeed Isaiah the prophet singles out the faculty of smell of the messiah (see Isaiah 11:3; B. Sanhedrin 93b), indicating the spiritual sensitivity and prowess of this longed-for era. Returning to our talmudic passage, our sages anticipate that in the future the youth of Israel will emit a pleasant fragrance, as it says: "His young shall go forth and his beauty shall be like the olive tree and his aroma will be like the Lebanon" (Hosea 14:7). Thus, according to one source, the reward promised to the righteous is 13 rivers of fragrant persimmon oil, a spiritually satisfying incentive (Bereshit Rabba 62:2). With the spiritual standing of the power of smell in mind, the blessing over fragrances takes on new meaning. We are not merely thanking the Almighty for the physical benefit we derive from a sweet smell. We are opening an olfactory window into our souls, getting a whiff of a spiritual existence and enjoying an aromatic trace of divine sustenance. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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