Atchoo! Someone sneezes near you, and you automatically reply, “G‑d bless you” (or “Gezundheit”).

But why do we wish blessings or health to someone who sneezes? We don’t do the same when someone yawns (though maybe we suggest that they go take a nap).

Let’s go back in time and learn what our sages have to say about sneezing.

Dangerous Sneezes

The Midrash tells us that in bygone days, sneezing was actually quite dangerous—it boded imminent death:

From the day that heaven and earth were created, no one was ever sick; if one was on the road or in the marketplace, he would sneeze, and his soul would leave by way of his nostrils. Until our forefather Jacob prayed to G‑d about this, saying: “Master of all worlds! Don’t take my soul from me before I have the opportunity to give instructions to my children and my household.” G‑d agreed with him, as the verse says:1 “After these events, Joseph was told, ‘Behold, your father is ill.’” All of the peoples of the world heard of this and were amazed, since nothing like this had happened since heaven and earth were created.2

Accordingly, the Midrash concludes, we wish life to someone who sneezes, since it used to represent the opposite.

Jews dispersed in various countries developed a range of responses in their local languages: “Labriut” in Hebrew, “asuta” in Aramaic, tzu gezunt in Yiddish, and so forth (each of these means “to health”). Some also have the custom for the sneezer to reply with the verse, “For your salvation I hope, G‑d,”3 as an expression of thanks to G‑d for saving him or her from that danger.4

The Good Side of Sneezing

On the other hand, a sneeze can be a positive thing. “If a person sneezes while praying,” the Talmud says, “it is a good sign for him.”5 Why? Because sneezing makes a person feel better, and so it is an indication that his prayer has been accepted: “Just as he is given satisfaction below, so is he given satisfaction Above.”

The Talmud and Midrash also note that sneezing is beneficial for a sick person, and that it is an indication of an improvement in his or her condition.6

The Nose

The nose and its function are so central to life that in Jewish law, a criterion for establishing a person’s death is that no breath is detectable at the nose.

The Zohar, interestingly, refers to G‑d as “the Master of the Nose,”7 and Kabbalistic sources explain that scent represents a very high level of divine energy.8 Appropriately, one of the most sacred services in the Holy Temple was the daily burning of incense, and a special offering of incense was made by the high priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The aroma of the Temple incense was so powerful, reports the sage Rabbi Elazar ben Dilgai, that his father’s goats “used to sneeze” from the smell of it wafting through the air.9

The Scent of Moshiach

Rabbi Mendel of Horodok was once learning in his study, when he heard a commotion in the street. Someone had gone up to the Mount of Olives and blown the shofar, and a rumor had spread that Moshiach had arrived! The rebbe opened his window and sniffed the air. “No,” he told his chassidim, “unfortunately, Moshiach is not here. When Moshiach comes, everyone will be able to perceive G‑dliness. I don’t sense this divine truth.”

Now, why is it that the rebbe had to open a window? Why couldn’t he just sniff the air in his study?

Rabbi Mendel of Horodok was on such a refined, spiritual level that the all-pervading truth of G‑d was already a tangible reality in his room. He had to sniff the air outside to sense if the global redemption had indeed arrived.

May we all merit the coming of Moshiach, who will have the ability to judge our actions through his finely tuned sense of smell, as it is written, “He shall smell by the fear of the L‑rd.”10