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Why Do We Smell Aromatic Spices (Besamim) at Havdalah?

Why Do We Smell Aromatic Spices (Besamim) at Havdalah?


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.1

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.2

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.3

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.”4 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 . . .”5 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.6

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.7

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.8 To strengthen it, we smell the fragrant besamim.9

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.10

See Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 297:1.
See Rashi on Talmud, Beitzah 16a and Taanit 27b, s.v. “Neshamah Yeteirah”; Responsa of Rashba 3:290; Abudraham, Seder Motzaei Shabbat.
Zohar 2:208b, 3:35b.
Bnei Yissaschar, Chodesh Adar 1.
See Bach, Orach Chaim, beginning of section 297.
See commentary of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura on Mishnah, Taanit 4:3.
Rabbeinu Bechayei, Genesis 34:25.
See Aruch Hashulchan 297:1.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
Artwork by Sefira Ross, a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Discussion (5)
January 13, 2016
Can you list couple of herbs? Niki
February 7, 2013
re: havdalah
I am not a Rabbi, but I believe the reason for opening and closing hands is because the blessing on the fire is meant to be about benefiting from the fire and not the existence of the fire itself. Similarly, it is smelling the bsamim - i.e. the benefit of the fragrance - to which we are blessing in thanks to G-d. The gestures with the fire are meant to be some use of the fire such as using the fire's light to inspect your handing (or to use it for warmth?). I know some families that turn out the lights in the room when reciting this blessing so they can use the light of the flame in order to read the blessing in the prayer book.

While the bsamim is a form of resuscitation after transferring from the spiritual to the mundane - I believe the fire is the actual symbol of the change as fire was forbidden on the Sabbath but now we are lighting and benefiting from a flame - signifying the Sabbath has ended.

Hope it helps.
January 26, 2013
Aromatic herbs
Are there any other times when there it is necessary to sniff herbs, and are there any reasons why cloves are uses more than others
Is this in the Talmud or Torah?
January 31, 2011
To Sarah:
Naftali Silberberg (author)
January 27, 2011
I'm a teacher, why do we smell Besamim and close our hand and open in front the fire in the Havdalah ceremony?

thank you
ny, usa