For Those Who Don’t Smell

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by R. Gil Student

I. No Smell

After Shabbos ends, we recite havdalah on wine, a special candle and spices for smelling, each item with its own blessing plus a blessing on separation itself marking the transition from Shabbos to weekday. Technically, if you do not have sufficient flame or spices readily available, you can recite havdalah without them (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 297:1, 298:1). We use spices in havdalah to revive the soul (nefesh) that suffers pain when Shabbos ends. What should someone with an impaired sense of smell do for havdalah?

There are three views among the Rishonim. 1) The Tur (Orach Chaim 297) quotes Rabbeinu Ephraim who says that someone who cannot smell may not recite the blessing on spices. Since he cannot benefit from the spices’ smell, his blessing would be unnecessary and therefore forbidden. 2) However, the Tur quotes his father, the Rosh, as disagreeing and allowing someone with an impaired sense of smell to say the blessing on spices on behalf of those who are listening. 3) The Beis Yosef (ad loc.) adds that the Orchos Chaim goes even further and allows someone who cannot smell to recite the blessing even for himself alone since sometimes a strong spice can cause him to straighten his back and head.

The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 293:5) rules like the Rosh, that someone who cannot smell recites the blessing on spices if he is saying it for someone else. However, the Magen Avraham (ad loc., 5) and Taz (ad loc., 8) argue that you can only do so for young children. Because the blessing on spices is about the enjoyment, and it is recited as a custom and not an obligation, someone who does not enjoy them cannot say the blessing for others. You can only say it for young children in order to educate them on how to say havdalah. This seems to be the standard ruling but Rav Ya’akov Reischer offers a different perspective.

II. Soulful Smell

When asked this specific question, Rav Reischer concludes in theory (but not in practice) that even someone who cannot smell the spices may recite the blessing. He adduces proof from the Gemara (Berakhos 43b) that explains the source of the blessing on smelling spices:

“Rav Zutra bar Toviya said that Rav said: From where is it derived that one recites a blessing over scent? As it is stated: “Let every soul praise the Lord” (Psalms 150:6). He explains the verse: What is it from which the soul derives benefit and the body does not derive benefit from it? You must say: That is scent.” (Koren Steinsaltz translation)

Rav Reischer (Shevus Ya’akov, vol. 3 no. 20) argues that even if your nose cannot benefit from the spices, your soul (neshamah) does. Since everyone’s soul benefits from the smell of spices, everyone should recite a blessing over it — even someone whose sense of smell is impaired. While he believes that the Orchos Chaim was correct, he was only willing to rule according to the middle opinion which the Shulchan Arukh adopts — that someone who cannot smell may recite the blessing on behalf of other adults.

Rav Yosef Engel (Gilyonei Ha-Shas, Berakhos, ad loc.) uses this understanding to answer Rav Yechezkel Landau’s question. Rav Landau (Tzelach, Berkahos, ad loc.) asks why the Gemara quotes the verse in Tehillim as a source for the blessing over scent. Earlier, the Gemara (Berakhos 35a) says that it is forbidden to enjoy anything in this world without saying a blessing. If so, why do we need the verse in Tehillim? Rav Engel answers that, according to the Shevus Ya’akov, the verse teaches that everyone (“every soul”) — even someone who does not enjoy the scent — says the blessing.

III. Smelling Means Smelling

Rav Reischer passed away in 1733 and the third volume of his Shevus Ya’akov was published only decades later in 1791 by his grandson. The publication was enthusiastically received — the book sold out quickly and many people could not acquire it. Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida) was so excited that he borrowed a copy and wrote a number of responsa discussing Rav Reischer’s conclusions. On this issue, Chida (Yosef Ometz, no. 16) thinks Rav Reischer contradicts the simple meaning of the text. Throughout halakhic literature, we see discussion of someone who smells a pleasant scent (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Berakhos 1:2). The language clearly excludes someone who cannot smell.

Similarly, Rav Yosef Engel (ibid.) says that Rav Reischer’s overly literal reading of the Gemara misses its point. The Gemara does not mean literally that the soul enjoys the scent. Rather, it means that the sense of smell is the pleasure farthest removed from the physical body. We cannot rule on a halakhic matter based on an aggadic reading of the Gemara.

If so, why does the Gemara need the verse in Tehillim? Rav Yechezkel Landau (ibid.) quotes the continuation of the earlier Gemara (Berakhos 35a) that someone who enjoys a pleasure without saying a blessing has committed me’ilah (sacrilegious misappropriation). In the Temple, me’ilah does not apply on a biblical level to voice, sight or smell (Pesachim 26a). Therefore, we might think that we do not have to say a blessing on enjoying the smell of a good scent. That is why the Gemara needs another verse.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Braun (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Berakhos 43b) and Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Me’or Yisrael, Berakhos 43b) both point out that the Rambam’s language poses a problem to Rav Landau’s explanation. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Berakhos 1:2) includes smell without a blessing within the rubric of me’ilah. If so, the question remains — why does the Gemara need the verse in Tehillim?

Rav Yitzchak Arieli (Einayim La-Mishpat, Berakhos 43b:7) quotes a Mishnah (Niddah 51b) which says that some pleasures have a blessing before them but not after them. The Gemara gives scents as an example. Rashi (Niddah 52a s.v. reichani) explains that because a scent is a relatively small pleasure, it does not merit a blessing after. Rav Arieli says that, for this reason, you might have thought that there is not even a blessing before smelling a scent, just like there is no blessing on hearing a pleasant voice. Therefore, the Gemara had to quote the verse in Tehillim to prove that even though it is a small pleasure, it still needs a blessing.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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