Fragrant Jewish Living (Shavuot)

Chag Sameach! Thanks to Rabbi Davis and thanks to you all for your warm welcome.

As we know, Shavuot is a festival of customs. For example, we have a custom of staying up late to study, and a custom of eating dairy food.

Today I would like to discuss one of the many Shavuot customs which is to adorn both the synagogue, and in fact the home, with flowers.

To begin with, lets consider why we do this.

As we know, the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, but beyond telling us WHAT was given at Sinai, we are also taught about HOW the Torah was given at Sinai.

There was thunder & lightning, and Mount Sinai was covered with greenery to the extent that the Jewish people were warned that their flocks should not graze on the mountain (see Shemot 34:3).

This is the reason why we place trees and plants in our synagogues and homes for Shavuot so that they APPEAR like Mount Sinai.

But I would like to challenge this premise and claim that while our synagogues and homes should LOOK like Mount Sinai with trees and plants, at least as significant is that they SMELL like Mount Sinai which was fragrant from all this lush greenery. In fact, I believe that one of the main reasons for placing trees and flowers in synagogues and homes for Shavuot is at least as much to do with their SCENT as their APPEARANCE, and numerous halakhic sources are actually quite insistent that the greenery that is brought into the synagogue and home for Shavuot is not only pleasing to the eye, but also pleasing to the nose.

But why would we care that our synagogues and homes SMELL like Mount Sinai?

To explain this point, I’d like us to consider how we use words relating to scent and smell.

Think about it, almost always when we combine observations of human behavior with references to scent, we are always making a qualitative moral observation.

For example, I’m sure you may have once said that someone has ‘a good nose for business’. And when talking about a dodgy deal, you may have said that ‘it doesn’t smell right’ or that ‘it stinks’.

Have you ever wondered why we use scent in the context of moral observations?

Truthfully, I don’t know how this entered common parlance, but according to our Rabbis, the reason for emphasizing the sense of smell over all other senses is because smell is the hardest sense to fool people with, the least tangible, and consequently, the most spiritual.

This idea is itself evident from the Hebrew word that we use for scent, which is ריח, and as you may know, this sounds very close to the Hebrew word that we use for spirit which is רוח.

In fact, when describing the time of the coming of Moshiach, the prophet Isaiah (11:3) observes how והריחו ביראת ה’ – his scent shall be in the fear of the Lord, to which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) then adds that Moshiach will be able to smell the actions of every person.

Clearly this doesn’t mean that Moshiach is going to be sniffing around and checking if we are wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein or Estee Lauder perfumes. Instead, what it means is that Moshiach will care less about what we LOOK like, and more about what we SMELL like in terms of our moral behavior.

So scents represent honesty, authenticity & spirituality, while sight, sound, touch & taste can be deceptive.

But what has this to do with the Giving of the Torah?

Well, the Talmud elsewhere (Shabbat 88b) remarks that when each of the Ten Commandments was spoken, the whole world filled with fragrance, meaning that aside from the Jewish people hearing the decalogue, they actually smelt it.

Now it is difficult to fathom what our Rabbis meant by this phrase, and here too I don’t think it should be taken on a literal level. But I do think they are teaching us something very deep which is that our experience of Torah needs to go beyond what we see, and within what we can smell.

But how do we SMELL Torah?

To answer this, I’d like to quote a commentary to the Shulchan Aruch that I studied when training as a Rabbi.

In the context of the laws of Kashrut and while discussing behaviour that reflects halakhic integrity, this commentary (see Shach on Yoreh Deah 89 note 8, quoting the Maharshal) remarked that a particular behaviour should be adopted by those with a ריח תורה – a SCENT OF TORAH.

Initially I was troubled by this remark. The Shulchan Aruch is a halakhic code, while this observation seems much more poetic. However, since first reading this phrase I have returned to this idea on numerous occasions and come to realise that there really are two levels of halakhic living.

On the basic level, a Jew can merely act in accordance with the laws of the Torah. However, a richer and more spiritually inclined approach to the mitzvot is for us to live spiritually fragrant lives where we connect with Torah not only on an intellectual level, but also on a spiritual level too.

Though this concept has numerous applications, I believe that it is particularly helpful when looking at the Orthodox Jewish world where, regrettably, there are Jews who seem to look the part but not live up to the part. How do we look towards Jews who seem to be observant, but who seem to lack a je ne sais quoi in their relationship with others? My belief is that they may have met the requirements to APPEAR observant, but they have failed in their duty to reflect the SCENT of Torah.

And let me give one further example where we find this idea which itself provides further depth to this custom.

As you may know, tradition teaches that Moshe Rabbeinu was born on the 7th of Adar, and we are also told that he was hidden for three months and then placed on the Nile.

If you do the math you come to realise that Moshe was placed in the Nile on or around Shavuot.

And what do we know about this moment when Yocheved placed Moshe in a basket?

We are told (see Rashi on Shemot 2:3, based on Sotah 12a) that while she had to ensure that the basket was waterproof, it was covered with the smelly pitch on the outside, and lined with clay on the inside כדי שלא יריח אותו צדיק ריח רע של זפת – so that the righteous person [Moses] should not smell the foul odor of pitch.

Though we can interpret this on a purely aesthetic level, I believe that we are being taught a deeper idea which is that beyond what something looks like and does, it should also smell right.

The custom of placing trees and flowers in our synagogues and homes for Shavuot is beautiful, but aside from adding to what we see, they also add to what we smell, and this serves as a profound reminder that we need to make sure that we live not only Jewish lives that appear to reflect the will of G-d, but also Jewish lives that transmit a fragrance of the will of G-d.


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