Dear Jew in the City-
Covid has a weird symptom of removing people’s senses of smell and taste. What do smell and taste represent in Judaism? Also, my whole family lost our sense of smell from Covid. How do we handle the besamim part of havdalah?
Thanks for your question. I hope your family recover the sense of smell quickly (as well as that of taste if that was also affected).
For the symbolism of taste and smell in Judaism, let us turn to the four species that are taken on the holiday of Succos (“Tabernacles”). These are the lulav (palm branch), hadassim (myrtle), aravos (willow) and esrog (citron). Each of these is different when it comes to taste and smell: the esrog has both a taste and a smell; the lulav has a taste but is odorless; the hadassim have a scent but not a taste; the aravos have neither.
It is said that taste represents Torah study and smell represents the performance of mitzvos, with the result that each of the four species represents a different type of person. Some people have the merits of both Torah study and mitzvah observance; some people have one or the other but not both; some people have neither. But just as one cannot wave the four species on Succos if any one of them is missing, our community is not complete unless every member is accounted for. (It should also be noted that, when we take the four species, the esrog – which has both taste and smell – is held next to the aravos, which have neither. Similarly, those who have Torah and mitzvos should make an effort to reach out to those who have neither.)
Now that we’ve discussed the symbolism of smell, let’s discuss the use of spices at havdalah. The first thing that many people may not realize is that the bracha Borei minei besamim (that God created the various species of fragrant spices) is not unique to havdalah. In fact, it’s not even the only bracha that one would recite on a pleasant aroma. Just like the Sages instituted brachos for various types of foods, they instituted brachos on different scents. The Talmud in Brachos (43b) says, “Rav Zutra bar Tovia said in the name of Rav: How do we know that one recites a bracha over fragrances? Psalms 150:6 says, ‘Let every soul praise Hashem.’ From what does the soul derive benefit and the body not derive benefit? From fragrances.” Pursuant to this, the Sages instituted five brachos on fragrances: Borei atzei besamim on fragrant trees; Borei isvei besamim on fragrant grasses; Borei shemen areiv on fragrant oil (specifically balsam); Hanosein reiach tov bapeiros on fragrant fruits; and the aforementioned Borei minei besamim on everything else. (Exactly when to recite each bracha is beyond our scope.)
The second thing that many people don’t realize is that the use of fire and spices is not an indispensable component of havdalah. Havdalah must be recited over a cup of wine. A bracha is recited over fire on Saturday nights because that’s when God inspired Adam with how to make fire. A bracha is recited over spices on Saturday nights in order to comfort our souls, which are pained by the departure of Shabbos. These latter two brachos are bundled with havdalah for convenience’s sake but if one doesn’t have fire and/or spices, he need not delay havdalah in order to acquire them.
Now, Corona didn’t invent loss of smell; this is a condition known as anosmia and it’s existed forever. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the halachic authorities have addressed your question. The proper course of action is the subject of a three-way dispute among the Rishonim (early authorities). The Tur says that one who can’t smell the spices may not recite the bracha over them. The Rosh (his father) maintained that one who can’t smell may recite the bracha on behalf of others. The Beis Yoseif allows one who can’t smell even to recite the bracha for himself since sometimes a strong spice could provoke a reaction. (All of these opinions are cited in Tur OC 297 and the commentary of the Beis Yoseif there.)
The Shulchan Aruch (OC 297:5) concludes, “One who can’t smell may only recite the bracha over spices in order to fulfill the obligation for members of his household who can smell and who have not reached the age of majority but who have reached the age of education, or to fulfill the obligation for one who doesn’t know how to do so.”
There are still other opinions among the Acharonim (later authorities). The Mishnah Brurah (297:13) cites an opinion that an anosmic is exempt from the bracha on spices and therefore can’t recite it on behalf of one who doesn’t know how (though he could still do so in order to educate his children). The Chida differentiates between those who have no sense of smell at all and those who are only temporarily unable to smell (such as because of nasal congestion), permitting only the latter to recite the bracha on behalf of their minor children.
It would seem that the proper course of action for those who have lost their sense of smell would be to recite the bracha if they have children between the age of education (typically 5 or 6) and bar or bas mitzvah. If such is not the case, one who can smell should recite the bracha for himself. If the members of your household are all above the age of bar and bas mitzvah and none of them can smell, it would seem that the bracha should be omitted. Of course, one is always encouraged to direct such questions to their own rabbi rather than to strangers on the Internet.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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