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