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D'var Torah by Ronit Ziv-Krieger, Ph.D.

Molly Birnbaum was apprenticing to become a gourmet chef – spending hours each day learning how to perfect intricate flavors and aromas – when the unimaginable happened. She went for a jog, was hit by a car, bumped her head – and completely lost her sense of smell.  Season to Taste, published in 2011, is her gripping account of her struggle to cope with this loss, to regain memories that were associated with particular smells and as she put it, to regain parts of her very identity that were lost along with her sense of smell.  Molly interviewed 200 other people who had lost their sense of smell, and spent many hours exercising her olfactory abilities.  After seven years, her ability to smell returned.

By contrast, I had hardly given a moment’s thought to smell when I was invited to co-present at a conference workshop with Molly, in which she would tell her story and I would offer reflections from Jewish wisdom about smell and fragrance.  I agreed, having little idea about what I would learn.  I trusted there would be interesting relevant texts—perhaps regarding the spices at Havdalah, or the ketoret (incense) of the Beit HaMikdash—but I did not know how the pieces might fit together, or what deeper messages might emerge.

To start my exploration, I searched for where the Torah first introduces the concept of smell. The Torah narrative brushes close to the topic when God breathes “nishmat chaim,”  the “breath of life,” into the nostrils of the first human.  Smell is not mentioned directly, only “nostrils.” However, nishmat chaim literally means “soul life,” and this passage alludes to a connection between soul and smell.

This connection is evident when the rabbis explain that one of the reasons we smell the b’samim during Havdalah is to console ourselves as the extra soul that has been with us during Shabbat, our “neshama yetarah,” is departing.  

Perhaps the most explicit connection between smell and soul made in the Talmud begins with the question, “From where do we know that we have a blessing over smell?”  The source quoted in answer to this question is “Kol ha’neshama tehallel yah,” “the entire soul shall praise G-d.”  This is hardly a self-evident answer, unless we read neshama (soul) as neshima, to get “with every breath (or sniff), praise G-d.” The next line poses another question: “What is it that provides pleasure to the soul but not to the body?”  The Talmud’s answer is “smell,” invoking a connection between smell and soul.

Returning to the quest to find the Torah’s first mention of smell, I looked to the Garden of Eden narrative, when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  What stands out here is not smell, but rather its absence.  Four of the five senses are central to the story: hearing instructions, seeing, touching and tasting the fruit; only the sense of smell is not included.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap says that the absence of smell during Adam and Eve’s missing of the mark is quite significant.  But how should we understand this? One avenue I explored is the Talmud’s link between smell and the messiah, who is associated with returning with humanity to an Eden-like existence.  Specifically, we are told in the Talmud about “mivchan mashiach,” “the test of the messiah,” and how the true messiah will be able to discern and judge each person based on their smell! A person’s smell, then, will convey his or her essence.  

Turning back to Bereshit, finally, we come to the first explicit mention of smell. Noah, coming out of the ark, offers a sacrifice. G-d smells the pleasing aroma (“Va’yarach HaShem et reach ha’nichoach”), takes it to heart, and commits never again to destroy the world on account of people.  The first time we are explicitly introduced to smell in the Torah, it is nothing less than a catalyst for changing the paradigm of G-d’s relationship to humanity and the biosphere!  What might this be telling us about smell? What about smell could be relevant to such a transformation?

Perhaps the verse itself can offer some guidance.  The first word, “yarach,” (G-d) smelled, is also the Hebrew word for “moon” (yareach) in an active, verbal form.  What is it that the moon does?  The moon reflects the light of the sun.  Moon has a reflective quality. This is in contrast to the sun.  The Hebrew word for “sun,” shemesh, is related to the word for “useful,” shamish.  If the sun symbolizes relating to others as instruments, useful for one’s own purposes, then the moon symbolizes relating to others by being present, appreciating them as they are, and reflecting their light.

What, then, does smelling have to do with the shifting of G-d’s relationship with humanity and the earth? G-d’s smelling may be like mivchan mashiach: an accurate sizing up of human nature, both the good and the bad.  At the same time, when we read “moon” into the language, then it’s also about reflecting the light—the positive and the potential—within the mixture of good and bad, and G-d taking that to heart, committing to never again destroy the world.

This way of reflecting the light might be what the rabbis had in mind when they quoted the verse “with every breath praise G-d” in order to explain why we make a blessing on smell.  It seems we are being invited into a way of being in which, with every breath, we are present with G-d’s creation, appreciating things as they are, focusing on what’s praiseworthy—a way of being that nourishes our soul.

Perhaps this way of being not only nourishes our own souls, but also is the kind of presence that G-d wants us to be sharing with the world as children of Avraham. In the Midrash, the rabbis likened Avraham to a pleasing aroma in a stationery bowl that few could smell.  Then, G-d told Avram to go and wander from place to place so that his fragrance could be experienced by many.  May we all be true children of Avraham.