Emor: Between a Gift and an Accomplishment

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08 May 2008

Where’s the Besamim (spices)?

(Disclaimer: I am not an expert on souls and can’t distinguish between basic souls and extra souls. We’ll leave that to the resident experts.)

Our Rabbis teach that every Shabbos we are bestowed with a neshama yeseira (1) – an extra soul, that serves as a necessary receptacle to receive the Shabbos spirituality. As Shabbos departs, so does that extra soul. During Havdala, we mark its departure by taking out the besamim.

Why davka (specifically) besamim?

Apparently the soul – scent connection is very deep. In probing the source that a bracha must be made before smelling spices, the gemara (2) invokes the pasuk “kol haneshama tehalel kah” – the whole soul shall praise you. That sense of smell somehow bypasses the body and allures the soul (3). Therefore as compensation for the departing soul (or perhaps a distraction), we grant the remaining basic soul some transcendent joy for its lost chavrusa.

Presumably, this soul also descends upon high as Yom Tov commences and and presumably, it departs with Yom Tov’s conclusion.

Hence our opening question: Why is there no besamim present at the Havdalah service that marks the conclusion of Yom Tov?

Some rishonim reject the first presumption. In the view of Tosafos (4), the extra soul is a Shabbos thing. Thus, one need not snuff besamim as Yom Tov departs. A basic conundrum still remains: If there is no neshama yeseira on Yom Tov, how do we explain the absence of besamim (from the quasi havdala ceremony) when Shabbos leads into Yom Tov? After all, the neshama yeseira of Shabbos is lost and none cometh on Yom Tov!? Sharply, Tosafos responds that Yom Tov itself serves as a compensation for the loss of the extra soul.

Rashbam argues. He does accept our initial assumption. No besamim is necessary in the Shabbos-Yom Tov scenario because there is an extra soul on Yom Tov! For him, our initial question looms large. Why then is there no besamim as Yom Tov departs? On this issue Rashbam is frustratingly silent. About 100 years later Ramban (5) came to the rescue and posits an enigmatic and ultimately remarkable response.

“On Yom Tov we receive an extra soul – but it does not depart as Yom Tov leaves – therefore we do not take the besamim”

Brilliant! Ramban rejects our second assumption. Yes there is a neshama yeseira on Yom Tov – but it is ours for the keeping. As Yom Tov departs, there is no need for the besamim compensation. We solve one problem, we create another: The perceptive reader (anybody still here?) is justifiably mystified: Why does the neshama yeseira of Shabbos bid us a weekly adieu while the Yom Tov neshama yeseira lingers on? On that issue, it is Ramban’s turn to be silent and Shem Mishmuel comes to the rescue – which brings us to our main point

Shabbos says Shem Mishmuel is a gift. It is an isarusa d’leila – an awakening from upon high. From there it descends and so shall it return. Not so Yom Tov. Famously, we, klal yisrael sanctify time (6). It is the collective Bnei Yisrael effort, through its Sanhedrin, that declares the new month and its corollary, the Moadim (holidays). Yom Tov then is an isarusa d’lesata – an awakening from below. While admittedly not the gift of Shabbos nor laden with the same degree of transcendent joy (oneg), Yom Tov remains. It is our human efforts that create a tefisas yad adam – a grasp that allows us to hold onto its sanctity forever. Yom Tov then, is an accomplishment. Emor, our parsha highlights this unique sanctity of the moadim; within it resides the section of holidays that possess kedusha known as mikraei kodesh, a sanctity called or created by Man.

Consider for a moment the kedusha of Har HaBayis and contrast it with Har Sinai. For forty days, the latter abode was Heaven on Earth, the recipient of the greatest Divine revelation bar none, known to Man. Remarkably, it retains no residual sanctity; its very location remains utterly unclear. The former site, aka the makom hamikdash, (the place of the beis hamikdash) retains its sanctity long after its edifice has been destroyed (and nebach been replaced with antithetical spiritual symbols). Wherein resides the difference? Shem Mishmuel’s distinction looms large: the Sinai sanctity was foisted from upon high. Har HaBayis was the product of human initiated sanctity – and thus it still retains (7).

Western Man generally shies away from considering his transient existence. I like to call it the death of death. We have created a doublespeak of the highest order (we don’t become old, only golden, there are no cemeteries only memorial parks and caskets have become containers). In stark contrast, Chazal, most assuredly not men of morbidity, prodded us to consider our mortality.

Why? Because in doing so, we are forced into become self aware, a painstaking process most critical in Avodas Hashem (Divine Service). We then unveil the gifts (and challenges) that Hashem has bestowed upon us. If we neglect them or worse, deny them, then we proceed at our own risk.

These gifts however are on loan. They are Divine presents, which as sure as Sinai, will come and go. Hashem nasan, Hashem lakach. What we do with those gifts, our spiritual accomplishments, are the ultimate measure of our eternal success.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. Beitzah 16
2. Berachos 43
3. It is fascinating that the prophet Yeshayahu (11:3) talks about sniffing out the Mashiach – v’hericho b’yiras Hashem. See Ohr Gedalyahu for an expansion on the theme of the uniqueness of the sense of smell.
4. Pesachim 102b
5. Emunah U’bitachon
6. Of course, this is at the root of the distinction in nusach between the Shabbos Kiddush and Yom Tv Kiddush (cf. Pesachim 117b)
7. On a deeper level one may point to the ultimate mesirus nefesh of Avraham in Akeidas Yitzchak that created the sanctity for generations.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.