Your smelly soul
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
What is the significance of the sniffing at the spices ("besamim") during the Havdalah ceremony at the conclusion of Shabbat?
We are told that when Shabbat enters every Jew is granted an "additional soul" which remains with him/her until the following evening. This extra soul enables us to be more spiritually sensitive for the duration of Shabbat. When this special soul leaves at the conclusion of Shabbat, our regular soul feels a void. It feels saddened to leave the holy Shabbat atmosphere and re-enter the mundane world; and it feels the loss of its companion who has been with it for the past 24 hours. In order to comfort our remaining soul for the loss that it is feeling, we smell some fragrant spices which help to soothe the soul.
But how does smelling some cloves or other aromatic herbs help to bring comfort to a soul in pain?
One of the qualities wherein the sense of smell stands apart from the other senses is that unlike the other senses, the sense of smell is (generally speaking) not subject to temptation.
The kabbalists explain the reason for this:
The sin of Adam and Eve in eating from "the tree of knowledge" involved all human senses, with the exception of smell. The verses relate that "the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and that it was desirable to the sight, and she took from its fruit and she ate...and they heard the voice of G-d". The senses of sight, touch, taste and hearing were all involved in that first sin - the cause of all sin and evil in the world. They were thus all affected by that first sin, they lost their spiritual sensitivity, they became subject to temptation. The sense of smell which was not engaged was not adversely affected by the sin. Consequently, the sense of smell remains essentially a spiritual sense, a sense which cannot be touched by evil; a sense from which the soul, rather than the body derives benefit.
Being fundamentally a spiritual sense, it is only the sense of smell that has the ability to impact the soul, so we use it to comfort the soul on its loss. But at the same time we wish to send a message to the soul feeling despair as it moves away from the spiritual high of Shabbat into the mundane week. We say to it - there is no reason for despair - just as in the fleshly body it is possible to find a place untainted by sin, so too in the mundane week it is possible to find pockets of spirituality and goodness, uncorrupted by our materialistic world. You just need to sniff it out.