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Shir HaShirim

Your scented oils have a good fragrance

Shir Hashirim launches an assault on our senses. The megillah is filled with descriptions of sounds, colors, tastes, and smells. At times it can be overwhelming. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to break down the layers, choose one sense to follow from beginning to end, in order to better understand just one aspect of this multi-sensory experience. This time I have chosen the sense of smell to guide us through. I won’t list the potpourri of aromas that waft through the megillah, I’ll skip the hints at the smells of the orchards, flowers, and fields in the megillah, and the use of myrrh scented oils and spices. We’ll focus on the more prominent smells and trace their development, in an attempt to translate scent into words. 

 “Your scented oils have a good fragrance, your name drips oils, and so the maidens love you.” (1, 2) The megillah begins with the attractive scent of the Dod (male lover). We are then introduced to the smell of the Ra’ayah (female lover) in his absence:  “While the king sat at his table my spikenard sent forth its scent.” (1, 12) Later on we are told of the sweet smell of the Ra’ayah using the same language we originally used to describe the scent of the Dod: “How fair is your love, my sister, my bride; how much better is your love than wine, and the smell of your oils than all manner of spices.” (4, 10) Finally we are told of the smells that envelop them as a couple: “The mandrakes give off a scent, and at our doors are all manner of precious fruit, new and old.” (7, 12) The fragrances develop and deepen along with the characters in the megillah. 

Our sense of smell is the most exalted of our senses. Our noses can help us sense things hidden from our eyes by optical illusions and things that escape our ears because of smooth talking. As we are told of the Mashiach: 

He will smell of fear of the Lord; and he will not judge by the sight of his eyes and he will not decide by the hearing of his ears. But with righteousness he will judge the poor and decide with equity for the humble of the land and strike the land with the rod of his mouth and by the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. (Yishayahu 11, 3-4) 

Our courts are called “einei haeidah,” “the eyes of the congregation.” We tend to use our other senses to describe the justice process, such as “a judge can only rely on what his eyes can see.” We also instruct judges to listen to both sides, get an impression based on what they heard, and then make their judgment. We overlook the sense of smell, but we should not. 

The Mashiach is unique in that he is able to pass judgment based on smell. In the story of the blessings Yitzchak gave to his sons we find that Yaakov was able to deceive Yitzchak’s sense of touch by covering his arms, but his sense of smell remained ‘on the nose’: “The scent of my son is like the scent of the field that the Lord blessed.” Man cannot control the smells that come from him, he can’t twist them, and he can’t change them. 

Radak further elaborates on what makes the sense of smell so unique: 

Smell is a slight feeling. When we want to talk about the hint of a feeling we talk about ‘smell.’ Like ‘he smells the battle from afar,’ ‘as a string of a tow is broken when it smells the fire.’ And so when it says ‘He will smell of fear of the Lord,’ as if to say with a bit of observation he will sense people, good and bad, and he will not need the sight of his eyes or the hearing of his ears when he judges people… for with his mind and his intellect he will understand their actions with a bit of observation…” (Radak Yishayahu, ibid) 

According to Radak the reason the sense of smell is used is that it is the initial sense processed by our brains when we observe our surroundings. Someone who is trying to judge based on words, tone, and body language will need a lot of time and patience. But the sense of smell is present from the first moment, it is the first thing we notice as it stirs our subconscious and gives us direct insight into the essence of a person- for better or for worse. Smell has a number of important qualities. It is the first impression that wafts off a person, and it spreads far. Even if there is only a faint odor we can often figure out its source. It also draws on a more primal sense, and while this sense may not be as sophisticated as the others, that also means it has less “bugs” and is more difficult to decieve, which makes it more reliable. 

There is something instinctive about scent. Smells are not pre-processed. They go straight to the olfactory bulb in the brain. The army and law enforcement often use dogs to locate things directly instead of going through the steps of a long, logical investigative process. Even traditional Jewish sources tell us about a child that could smell which of the Tannaim had not yet recited keriyat shma. (Zohar III, 186, 1) Often smells will trigger flashbacks of past experiences, and scent is strongly associated with memory. We often have positive or negative associations with certain smells based on the memories they are connected to. There are even studies that indicate that people can subconsciously identify the feelings of the people around them based on their sense of smell.


The text tells us that Mashiach will smell through the fear of God. Apparently his sense of smell will be calibrated by identifying certain smells with the fear of God. Perhaps it is a paradox then that our sense of smell, this instinctive almost animal sense, is connected to our nostrils, which are also associated with our breath (neshima) and our soul (neshama)- the more elevated parts of a person which separate us from the animal kingdom. But perhaps is it not such a paradox. After all, when we scrape away at the façade and dig down to what is primal and instinctive we can also find who we are truly- what is natural and pure, deep inside ourselves.

In Shir Hashirim the expression of the primal bond between the Dod and Ra’ayah is based on the imitation of the fragrances and the sweet smells they both give off. The Raayah had to get it just right so that the smell of her oils would be sweet. It took her time to get there, and she had a few failed attempts as we are told, “While the king sat at his table my spikenard sent forth its scent.” (see T.B. Gittin 36b) Once she refines herself internally her scent becomes her signature. It shapes memory. It makes everything clear. Our personal, human memories meld with the memories and consciousness of the greater world. 

After we have tracked the sense of smell through the megillah we can go beyond and identify more than the movement inward and withdrawal from intellectualization that go with it. The movement of the smells as they return to the inner depths of the soul runs contrary to other processes in the megillah that we have ignored until now. These develop by moving upward and outward.  The young woman grows and physically develops into maturity, the Dod ripens and opens up in anticipation of their meeting, and nature- the trees and plants- wake up and give fruit. While these developments move forward brazenly, they are only possible because our lovers have found the ability to be true and to be natural- because they have a healthy and well-tuned sense of smell. 


Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778