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The Kabbalah of Smell

The Kabbalah of Smell

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Being the youngest in my family, I was unfamiliar with the finer points of the art of diaper changing. Prior to the birth of my oldest child, I actually found myself looking forward to this rite of parenthood, waiting to be introduced to this new ritual.

At first it was not bad, not much of a challenge. More recently, however, as my son approaches his second birthday, the stench emanating from his diaper is unreal. I don’t really mind changing his diaper—and the odor provides an incentive to do so expeditiously—but the smell which precedes the changing is quite unbearable.

The messes my son makes in the dining room, the unpolished silver in the china closet, or my unmade bed—all bother me. But they are relatively manageable in comparison to the stench that extends from the diaper. I find this intriguing. Why can I mentally block out images of chaos and disarray, but not a foul smell?

Ironically, the faculty of smell seems to be the least important of the human senses and faculties. A lack of ability to walk, speak, hear or see is considered a major handicap. A deficiency in any of these vital areas presents extreme challenges to the individual possessing such a disability. Lacking olfactory ability, on the other hand, is not considered a grave handicap. I have yet to hear anyone say, “Oh, what a pity on that guy, he cannot smell!” I’m still waiting for the day when one of my colleagues enters the office and announces, “My G‑d, I did not smell anything today! Please bring me something fragrant, quick!” Life in the office has “toughened” me; nowadays I’m rarely amazed by some of the odd habits I witness . . . but I’ll admit that I’d be highly surprised to hear such a statement!

This is because smell is not a human need. Contrast this with food. Food provides us with life energy: we cannot exist without eating. And yes, on a daily basis one or more of my coworkers enter the office grumbling about being hungry, or expressing their absolute inability to function unless they have a coffee ASAP.

However, as “insignificant” as olfaction may seem, it has an intrinsic quality that goes beyond food, beyond voice and sight. An individual is refreshed upon smelling a pleasant fragrance. Coming home on Friday afternoon and smelling the delicious aromas of the Shabbat foods baking in the oven . . . In a certain sense, the aromas provide what ingesting the foods cannot. They calm a person down; they please, refresh and warm the soul.

In my grandfather’s synagogue there was a bottle of pungent-smelling salt. A senior member of the congregation explained to me that the bottle was set aside for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day when all fast. “In the event that someone faints,” he said, “we pull out the bottle and place it beneath the individual’s nose. It does the trick. It brings the person back to consciousness.” While I never personally witnessed such an incident, it got me thinking. Why not just stuff a piece of cheesecake in the person’s mouth? Would that not do the trick?


Food is very physical, and that’s what it offers a person—physical nourishment. We eat to strengthen our bodies, and thus provide our souls with healthy habitats.

Fragrance is not palpable, and neither are the benefits it offers. Kabbalah teaches that smell is the connection of the physical and spiritual, our connection to the soul.

In the story of Creation, after G‑d formed Adam out of earth, “He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.”1 The connection between the nose and the soul remains. Olfaction is a sensation of the soul, the soul benefiting or suffering from pleasing or disturbing aromas. The physical person’s ability to share the sensations provided by smell is a window into the world of the soul.

When I have a cold and my congested nose doesn’t allow me to smell, I am not handicapped. Being unable to smell is not a physical handicap; it is a spiritual impairment. I have lost my connection between body and soul.

Because sound and sight are connected to the physical, they have the ability to absorb my entirety—I become engrossed in the film; my entire being is forgotten as I watch a fascinating documentary or listen to a delightful composition of fine music.

Smell, on the other hand, calms. It brings renewed strength from a higher plateau, the soul. It awakens one from a faint because it reaches the soul and brings down renewed strength to the body.

And when there is a bad stench, it too touches my soul. And therefore I cannot handle the smell. My soul cannot handle it, and I am compelled to remove the source of the offending odor and air out the room.


Every Shabbat we are endowed with an additional soul which accompanies us on this holy day. This soul departs us with the arrival of darkness on Saturday night, and our “weekday soul” grieves at the loss of its spiritual companion.

During the havdalah parting services, when we bid the Shabbat farewell, we smell a pleasant fragrance.2 This comforts the soul, bringing it a sense of tranquility and relief.3

Footnotes
2.

Talmud, Berachot 57b; Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 297.

3.

Based on the teachings of the “Tzemach Tzedek,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the third Chabad rebbe (Sefer ha-Likkutim, s.v. Reiach), and other sources.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Anonymous December 18, 2016

Anosmia Those who develop anosmia, after catching a flu virus, or suffering a brain injury, or for whatever reason, would dance with joy if they could only catch a whiff of a dirty diaper again. This would give them reassurance that their sense of smell might return. No-one knows what it is like until they have suddenly and maybe permanently, been struck with this terrible 'loss', not knowing if the sense would ever return. They probably realise they never really appreciated what they had before and took this particular sense so much for granted. It may be a sense that we might feel that if we had to do without one, it would be this one, but I think we should reconsider and appreciate it more. We lose a lot more than we think, physically and spiritually, without our odours, nice, neutral or nasty. Reply

Anonymous Hong Kong October 13, 2014

When they say that the "Moshiach will judge by his sense of smell" - means that the soul will be judged based on what he has done that revealed greater light - actions that are beyond his nature. Reply

Akiva B. Oakland, CA June 12, 2014

Using smell saves lives Ever smell soured milk in an old carton? Ever smell a putrid chicken? Tasting can be hazardous so, thank goodness for smell. It's been less than one century since we could keep foods refrigerated at home and most of the world's population still cannot. Every time I smell strawberries or fresh cut grass, I have vivid memories of childhood, with no less impact than hearing a popular oldies song. Women around the world spend Billions of dollars each year on perfume, cologne and scented soaps - try telling a wife that it's not important - try kissing her in the morning before you brush your teeth - you better have a comfortable couch. Reply

Anonymous No location June 12, 2014

Today is different than it was in the past. Interesting that you can lock your mind to images but not odors. Has it ever happened that your mind remembers an odor? There is nothing nearby that can produce odor, still, the smell permeates however, implacable, your nose. To me that is a metaphysical experience. And the smell, as you suggest is something a step beyond the physical, which carries us to past or perhaps warns us of the future: if that smell were to be found in the near future. And just one other thing I was going to forget: the stench " which precedes the changing is quite unbearable" is produced by the diaper itself. Responsible for this are the manufacturers and it is because in the past when a child soiled his diaper he was left that way for hours to remark that the next time this happens he should ask to be taken to the toilet. The modern approach is different now days you have to change the diaper immediately and whenever the child gets dirty again and you have to change it back. Don't forget to wash your hands before having meals. Reply

Michelle Krell Kydd NY, NY August 11, 2011

The Kabbalah of Smell The Sense of Smell is directly wired to the area of the brain where we retain our memories. Remove this sense and a human being's identity loses its internal compass (and to a degree, its spiritual compass based on what you have shared). Anosmia is the name for the loss of the sense of smell; and it is a loss in the highest sense. Anosmia is one of the early signs of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease. Taste +Smell = Flavor so one cannot enjoy food as much when one loses their ability to smell. These are facts, not opinions. Kindly consider them the next time you write about the sense of smell. Reply

sue Kanata, ON December 15, 2010

Necessary Discernment in areas wher vision cannot judge, texture is not evident- smell helps us to survive. I would like you to remember that your holy giftsa re there to offer you bliss enjoyment as a human being, but also that you need to know what gas smell is if you have gas heat, to save your life. Your body needs to sense when not to breathe deeply, like when you're behind the exhaust of a car. If you didn't scent your little ones diapers, he might go without a change for too long, etc. Isay it is a necessary sensibility.
As for changing the wee one- try putting a touch of Vicks or Peppermint essential oil directly under your nostrils- so easy. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 15, 2010

the human nose I wish to add to my comment the following, and that is, the aural similarity of the word "nose" and "knows". I think this is truly an important word connect, as I am finding my way on a road perhaps less traveled, that deals with my Mother tongue, English. The word Gnostics, that is about the study of truth also contains the echo of this word. And to follow one's nose in English means to follow a scent, an instinct, for finding something out, to uncover.

There is a kind of sense that is not often discussed that yes, does involve our noses. How lovely that nose and rose do rhyme, and we say, take time to smell the roses.

In fragrance itself, the word, I hear the word REI for king, and RAY, for what radiates towards us all, as in, knowledge, Divine truths. It's inherent in the notion of the sephirot themselves. The radiating "spokes" of a wheel, what does speak to us all, in layers and layers of meaning. Surely the "hidden" face of the Divine, a coat of many colors. As for offal, awful Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 14, 2010

the olfactory "sense" Actually, it is well known that taste is very dependent on smell. When we cannot smell properly for whatever reason, we do not taste food in the same way, and those who are so deprived find food quite "stale" in terms of gustatory delights.

The sense of smell is an ancient smell. The animals have a much more advanced sense of smell and we do retain olfaction but not as they do, and they do depend on this for survival itself.

There are those among us who have very acute senses of smell, and I know someone who has this faculty, and it is a blessing and a curse, as she smells the urine and offal on every walk in the park. She also smells fragrance from a distance and can identity the perfume.

To smell a rose, is truly divine, and yes, it does pervade all of our senses and does deeply open us, as a window, another window to the soul. This sense can be a positive in alerting us to what is "bad", what to avoid, and how to deal with it. In metaphor as in daily life. Reply

Rachel Emmes Sydney December 14, 2010

Smell, the greatest sense As a blind person relies more on his other senses, these senses become more acute and refined. The ability to refine all of our senses, particularly smell requires our absolute focus and appreciation of that sense and then how all of our senses work together in harmony. Stand in a forrest or at the sea shore and close your eyes, take deep consentrated breathes to be intune with creation and at peace. This is where the saying "Smell the flowers" comes from and I would add and "listen to the birds" here we find - No stress, no pain, no confusion to our total being excelling to the greatest heights. Some call this meditation, I would call it being in touch and connecting with the Almighty. Peace is in the world if it is within us firstly. Reply

Anonymous Adelaide, Australia August 29, 2010

Basil Just a month or so ago I was privileged as a non-Jew to attend the Synagogue on Yehuda Street, Jerusalem. I noticed that at one point during the service sprigs of Basil were shared around. Is it possible for someone to comment on this practice? I will watch with interest in case someone replies.
A very interesting article.
Thank you.
ajb Reply

Debby Boston February 12, 2009

The Kabbalah of smell Smell is the only sense that didn't participate and so didn't get corrupted when Adam and Chava sinned. People who have a very developed sense of smell are very spiritual.. source: if I remember well, the notes on the parsha
in the Artscroll Stone Chumash Reply

Joseph R. Carbone, M.D. New York, New York April 12, 2007

odor from a diaper If the odor from an infant's/toddler's diaper is particularly offensive it may be a sign that something is wrong such as an infection.
It is important to bring the matter to the attention of a pediatrician so he or she could have a stool specimen sent to the laboratory for examination and make sure everything is alright with your childs gastrointestinal tract.

Olfaction is actually a very important part of the human brain. An especially large area of our brain is devoted to it.
Olfaction probably plays a much greater role in our lives, including important decision making processes, than we realize.

Thank you for writing about this very fascinating theme. Reply

Sarah Michlin w bloomfield, mi usa March 9, 2007

no sense of smell No, we won't hear the comments "Pity he cannot smell anything" but that is mostly because this is a hidden disability. However, the comparison of having a cold, during which one feels poorly (or worse) is unfair. It is when we feel otherwise fine, and only lack a sense of smell for perhaps a few weeks, not just days, that the impact is truly felt. During one scentless time my world felt as exciting as flat soda. Everything felt dull, as if I were percieving the world through layers of clear thick fabric. I remember welcoming the scent of a skunk, as a sign that at least something was getting through. And yet most people had no idea that there was a problem. Reply

Yosef Porter Cleveland, OH February 19, 2007

The Kabbalah of smell.
Thank you for an important subject. The Rebbe points out in a maamer entitled "And the Spirit of G-d will rest on him", that Moshiach will judge by his sense of smell. Also, perhaps this sense goes deeper than the other senses since we probably get good at using it before we learn sight and language. Reply

Anonymous Laredo , /tx February 16, 2007

The Kabbalah of Smell This is a beatifull explanaion of these olgfactory variables in the Kabbalah experience, I feel more should be developed ad seen about this. Reply

YY Jacobson via chabadfoxchapel.com February 15, 2007

Great Job Dovid! Reply

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