“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare, arrange ten simple words into possibly the most famous aphorism in the English language.
And yet, for all the mystique and romance associated with the beauty of the rose, the greatest of all poets recognized fragrance, not visage, as the defining quality of the most admired flower.
Bonnie Blodgett would almost certainly agree. In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing and Discovering the Primal Sense, Ms. Blodgett describes the emptiness and depression that took over her life when a zinc-based nasal spray disrupted the operation of her olfactory nerve and disfigured her sense of smell.
Gone were the familiar, reassuring fragrances of her garden, replaced by ceaseless aromas of rotting flesh and excrement, which Ms. Blodgett describes as nothing less than torture. But even when these “phantom smells” abated, the odorless existence that replaced them was only a marginal improvement.
“I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything,” she told NPR. “When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there — I don’t know how to explain it — I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me.”
Adding insult to injury was the lack of sympathy received from friends. Unlike blindness, deafness, illness, or injury, most of us cannot relate to an impaired sense of smell as especially debilitating. Of all our senses, it is the one we are most likely to take for granted.
Of course, not everyone fails to recognize the power of fragrance. From Cleopatra to Oprah Winfrey, the rich and powerful have scented themselves to augment their personas and project an image of potency, charisma, or sensuality. Today, the research, development, and production of perfume and cologne have created a $25 billion industry that markets, in the words of star perfumer Sophia Grojsman, “a promise in a bottle.”
National Geographic explains it this way: “Memory and fragrance are intertwined, some biologists insist, because the sense of smell plugs smack into the limbic system, the seat of emotion in the brain. No other sense has such immediate access.”
The unique power of fragrance takes little time to assert itself in the chronicles of mankind. Immediately upon exiting the ark, Noach gave thanks for his salvation by building an altar and bringing offerings of thanksgiving. “And Hashem smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Hashem said to Himself, Never again will I curse the earth on account of man” (Bereishis 8:21). According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Torah uses the language of “aroma” to describe direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways.
The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7). The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah – “breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration. By the same token, the spices we inhale as part of havdalah ease our transition from Shabbos, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity, back to an existence defined by the physical and the mundane.
In the days of the Mishkan and the first Beis HaMikdash, the burning of incense made up the most intensely spiritual form of service: the only offering presented in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, once a year on Yom Kippur. Here, explains Rav Hirsch, we find a symbol for the Jewish people’s total ascension before G-d through their commitment to His service. In the language of Chazal, smell is that which benefits the soul and not the body (Berachos 43b).
Just as smell is the most difficult sense to measure, quantify, and define, so too is our spiritual essence the least palpable and discernable facet of our existence. Similarly, the interplay between one soul and another is the most elusive of human pleasures, but it is also the most rewarding. As Shlomo HaMelech says, “Scented oil and incense gladden the heart, sweet as the sincere counsel of a kindred soul” (Mishlei 27:9). Indeed, the smoky fragrance of incense wafting into the corners of our minds and rippling across the strings of our hearts is anything but smoke and mirrors; it stirs our memories and hopes and dreams the same way that true friendship and camaraderie arouse our spirit. Truly, the faculty of smell provides the spice of life by adding texture and dimension to all our other senses.
Ask Bonnie Blodgett. As suddenly as her sense of smell disappeared, just as suddenly it returned, and she will never take it for granted again. “I was going around smelling everything,” she says. “Being able to smell lilacs again was just — I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
But it goes beyond mere olfactory pleasure. There is truth to common expressions like he has a good nose for business and something doesn’t smell right. Like our sense of smell, human intuition is our intangible moral compass, guiding us when we encounter something for the first time to quickly assess its value and authenticity. When Yaakov Avinu, disguised as his brother, Eisav, entered his father’s tent, Yitzchok exclaims, “The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field blessed by G-d” (Bereishis 27, 27). The sages elaborate, explaining that the fragrance of Gan Eden had entered with Yaakov, convincing Yitzchok to bestow his blessing (Rashi, ad. loc).
What was this “fragrance of Eden”? It was nothing less than the soul’s eternal connection with the Almighty’s master plan, which began with the creation of a perfect world and will culminate in the rectification of the Sin of Adam signaled by the arrival of the messianic era.* And throughout the long generations of chaos in between, the spiritual nature of our world can be scarcely perceived through sight, sound, touch, or taste. But it can be smelled, if we pay attention to the subtle pleasures of life that are expressions of the human soul and contemplate the mysterious allegory of fragrance.
And so Chazal tell us that, when Moshiach comes, he will “smell and judge,” – determining complex truths through spiritual discernment (Sanhedrin 93b). Thus we find, according to Chassidic tradition, the story of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the 18th Century Torah giant whose wife ran through the door one afternoon shouting, “Mendel, Mendel, there’s a man outside shouting that Moshiach has arrived!”
Immediately, Reb Menachem Mendel jumped up and ran to the window, took a long sniff of air, then shook his head and muttered, “Nonsense!” before returning to his studies. Like Yitzchok Avinu, the rebbe knew that a world with Moshiach smells different from a world without Moshiach, and that if he could not detect the fragrance of Gan Eden then certainly Moshiach had not yet arrived.
Two generations later, Reb Yisroel of Rizhin asked why the illustrious rebbe had to run to the window – why could he not simply sniff the air in his own home?
The Rizhiner answered his own question. So involved was the Rebbe with his own personal avodas Hashem, so intent was he upon hastening the arrival of Moshiach, so profoundly had he had already connected with the spiritual source of the universe that his own house had already acquired the fragrance of Gan Eden. Consequently, he had to run to the window to discover what the rest of the world smelt like.
The more we focus on what we should be doing to bring Moshiach, the more our lives will acquire the fragrance of the messianic era. And the more eagerly we await Moshiach’s arrival, the sooner we will enjoy a world in which we draw in the aroma of kedusha with every breath.
*Based on the Malbim, loc. cit.
Published in Iyan Magazine, 2 July 2014. With thanks to Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Aish.com.