MEANING IN MITZVOT by Rabbi Asher Meir
Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on the commentary “Meaning in Mitzvot” on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, which is serialized on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, www.vbm-torah.org
BLESSING ON SMELL
Our parsha discusses the making of the special scented oil for anointing the utensils of the Mikdash and the incense used as part of the service (Shemot 30:22-38). The prominence of these mixtures testifies to the special significance of the sense of smell in the Torah; another expression of this importance is the requirement to make a blessing on fragrances.
ENJOYMENT OF THE SOUL
At the simplest level, the statement that smell benefits the soul and not the body means that smell does not fulfill any bodily need and does not become part of the body - unlike food and drink. For this reason, we could think that it is not a real or substantial enjoyment, and does not require a blessing. That is why a Biblical source (or hint) for the obligation is required.
Yet our Sages seem to be indicating a positive trait of scent - that it, uniquely, is the enjoyment of the soul - and not just the negative trait that it is not the enjoyment of the body. (After all, when food is tasted without bodily enjoyment there is no blessing – SA OC 210:2.) Smell seems to have a special connection to the spirit.
In secular culture also, smell represents to us the essence and innerness of the object. (Indeed, the word “essence” is used to refer to a scent.) It is what remains when the object itself is gone. When all appears well, we may express our instinctive feeling of unease by saying that something “smells funny”. “The eye can be deceived, but the nose knows.”
Smell is also considered the most evocative, the most inner, and the most primitive of our senses. Not only does it penetrate the innerness of the object, it also penetrates to our own innerness.
So of all our senses, smell creates the most direct connection between the innerness of the object we perceive and our own inner selves. While the body appreciates decoration, the enjoyment of the soul is to encounter something directly, as it truly is.
A SMELL WITH NO SOURCE
The idea that a blessing must connect us with the spiritual within the material is reflected in the rule that no berakha is said on a “reiach sheain lo ikar” - a fragrance which has no present and tangible source (SA OC 216:6, 217:3). The berakha is meant to connect us to the world, not to detach us from it by closing us up in a cocoon of mere sensation (see Kuzari III:16).
SMELL AND MOSHIACH
In turn, Rav Nachman shows how scent, as the innerness of objects which remains even when the object is gone, is a metaphor for the holiness immanent in the material world. Just as scent remains in a vessel even after the perfume has been emptied out, so HaShem’s presence remains in the world even though He has partially removed Himself.
So mankind’s physiological ability to instinctively apprehend objects through their scent is a metaphor and a parallel of our spiritual ability to instinctively apprehend the remnants of G-dliness which inhere in our material world. This ability is limited at this stage of history, but we can develop it by living a spiritual existence and constantly focusing on the G-dly aspect of everything. Soon we will be able to greet the Moshiach, who will instantly and perfectly perceive the spiritual aspect of everything, and transmit his knowledge to mankind.
This is one reason why we make a special point of blessing on spices as Shabbat goes out. Then we have a heightened expectation of greeting EliahuEliahu:Herald of Moshiach who will herald the arrival of Moshiach (Likutei Halakhot, Laws of blessings on Smell).
Rabbi Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. He is also directing the Jewish Business Response Forum at the Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev. The forum aims to help business people run their firms according to Torah, by obtaining prompt, relevant responses to their questions.