The sages instituted that we smell fragrant spices (besamim) every motzaei Shabbat, the evening after Shabbat (unless Sunday is a holiday), in order to comfort the soul, which is saddened by the departure of the “extra soul” that it received on Shabbat.
What exactly is this “extra soul”?
On a basic level, this refers to the fact that on Shabbat a person is more disposed toward relaxation, joy, and celebrating the holy day with extra food and drink.
According to the Zohar, however, this “extra soul” is not simply a state of mind or greater disposition toward relaxation, but in fact every person literally receives an extra soul on Shabbat. With the conclusion of Shabbat this extra soul departs, and the remaining soul mourns the loss of the extra soul.
The Talmud tells us that the loss of the extra soul is hinted to in the verse “. . . on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.” The word וַיִּנָּפַשׁ, “refreshed,” can be read as two words, וַי-נֶּפֶשׁ, yielding the meaning, “Once one has rested (i.e., at the conclusion of Shabbat), וי אבדה נפש—woe, the [additional] soul is gone!”
Smell and the Forbidden Fruit
Why, of all things, is fragrance used to ease the soul’s pain? One reason for this is that when Adam and Eve sinned with the Tree of Knowledge, they used all their senses except for smell to sin. The verse states: “the woman saw . . . and she took . . . and he ate . . . they heard . . .” Nowhere does it say that the sense of smell was used. Therefore, smell is the most refined of all the five senses, and is the one most enjoyed by the soul.
Getting Rid of the Stench from Hell
Although the loss of the extra soul is the main reason given for smelling the fragrance on motzaei Shabbat, there are other reasons given as well.
At the onset of Shabbat, the fires of hell are extinguished, and the souls that are there get a bit of rest. At the conclusion of Shabbat the fires are reignited, and the soul can sometimes feel a weakness or depression come over it as it catches a whiff of the stench emanating from hell. We therefore smell the besamim to give the soul strength. Some explain that this reason really comes together with the loss of the extra soul, for the reason why the soul is more susceptible to depression is because it is already suffering a loss.
Third Day of Man’s Creation
Sunday is the third day after man’s creation (since man was created on Friday). Just as the third day after a circumcision is considered to be the most precarious and dangerous time for the person, so too Sunday is considered a time of weakness for the soul. To strengthen it, we smell the fragrant besamim.
You may have noticed that you feel different after Shabbat leaves. Although we may not know or feel the real reason for this change, our souls do.