Flavor and Fragrance – The Bracha on Fragrant Fruits
In honor of the month of Shvat, and a bit before Tu Beshvat, I decided to send an article that explains the halachos of the bracha Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros “He who bestows pleasant fragrances in fruits.” Many authorities prefer the version Asher nasan rei’ach tov ba’peiros, in past tense, “He who bestowed pleasant fragrances in fruits” (Eliyah Rabbah 216:5; Mishnah Berurah 216:9).
Here are some curious questions about this bracha that we need to resolve:
1. Do we recite this bracha on a food that is not a fruit?
2. Assuming that we recite this bracha on any food, do we recite this bracha on a seasoning that is not eaten by itself, such as cinnamon or oregano?
3. If I am eating a fragrant fruit, do I recite a bracha when I smell it while I am eating it?
4. Do I recite this bracha when smelling a delicious cup of coffee or a freshly-baked pastry? After all, the coffee bean is a fruit, and the flour of the pastry is a grain, which is also halachically a fruit. As we will see, the answer to this question is not so obvious.
ORIGINS OF THE BRACHA “HANOSEIN REI’ACH TOV BA’PEIROS”
The Gemara (Berachos 43b) teaches that someone who smells an esrog or a quince should first recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros.
Question: Why did Chazal institute a unique bracha for aromatic fruits?
Answer: Whenever one benefits from this world one must recite a bracha. Thus, Chazal instituted brachos that are appropriate for fragrances. However, all the other brachos on fragrance are not appropriate for smelling fragrant foods, since the other brachos praise Hashem for creating fragrances, whereas esrog and quince are not usually described as fragrances, but as foods that are fragrant. Therefore, Chazal established a special bracha for aromatic fruits (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim end of Chapter 297).
It is noteworthy that although quince is still considered a fruit for the purpose of this bracha even though it is not edible raw. More on this question later…
DO WE RECITE THIS BRACHA ON FRAGRANT FOODS THAT ARE NOT FRUITS?
This leads us to a fascinating halachic discussion with a surprising conclusion.
A BRACHA ON SMELLING BREAD?
Several early poskim contend that one should recite a bracha before smelling hot fresh bread (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim Chapter 297, quoting Avudraham and Orchos Chayim). However, when discussing what bracha one should recite, these poskim contend that mentioning besamim (such as the brachos of Borei isvei besamim or Borei minei besamim) is inappropriate since bread is not a fragrance but a food that has a pleasant fragrance. It is also inappropriate to recite on it Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros, since it is not a fruit. We therefore find some authorities who conclude that one should recite Hanosein rei’ach tov bapas, “He who bestows pleasant fragrance in bread.” Indeed, one contemporary posek rules that someone who smells fresh cookies should recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’ugah, “He who bestows pleasant fragrances in cake.”
However the Beis Yosef and other poskim disagree, contending that one does not recite a bracha before smelling bread or cake, pointing out that the Gemara and the early halachic sources never mention reciting a bracha before smelling bread. These poskim contend that we do not recite a bracha on smelling bread because its fragrance is not significant enough to warrant a bracha (Beis Yosef, Chapter 297).
This creates a predicament, since according to the “early poskim,” one may not smell bread without first reciting a bracha, whereas according to the Beis Yosef, reciting a bracha on its fragrance is a bracha recited in vain! The only way of resolving this predicament is by trying not to smell fresh bread, which is the conclusion reached by the Rama (216:14).
(Incidentally, the Rama’s ruling teaches a significant halacha about the rule of safek brachos li’kula, that we do not recite a bracha when in doubt. Although one may not recite a bracha when in doubt, one also may not smell a fragrance or taste a food without reciting the bracha because that would be benefiting from the world without a bracha. This halacha applies whenever someone has a doubt about reciting a bracha.)
The concept, introduced by the Beis Yosef, that one recites a bracha only on a significant fragrance is hard to define. What is considered significant? The following is an example in which poskim dispute whether a fragrance is considered significant.
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE!
The Mishnah Berurah (216:16) rules that someone who smells fresh-roasted ground coffee should recite a bracha of Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros. However, the Kaf HaChayim (216:86), one of the great Sefardic poskim, rules that it is uncertain whether the fragrance of coffee is significant enough to warrant a bracha. Thus, most Sefardim will not recite a bracha prior to smelling fresh-roasted coffee, whereas those who follow the Mishnah Berurah would recite a bracha before smelling roasted coffee beans.
As we have discussed, although some poskim (Avudraham and Orchos Chayim) limit the bracha of Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros to fruits, other poskim contend that this bracha should be recited before smelling any fragrant food. This dispute influences the next discussion.
DO WE RECITE HANOSEIN REI’ACH TOV BA’PEIROS ON A FRAGRANT SEASONING?
The question here is what defines an edible fruit for the purposes of this bracha. Do we recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros only on fruit or do we recite it on any edible item? Furthermore, is a flavoring or seasoning considered a food for the purposes of this bracha or not?
Spices that are used to flavor but are themselves never eaten, such as bay leaves, are not considered a food. For this reason, there is no requirement to separate terumos and maasros on bay leaves even if they grew in Eretz Yisroel (Tosafos Yoma 81b; Derech Emunah, Terumos 2:3:32). A seasoning that is never eaten by itself, but is eaten when it is used to flavor, such as cinnamon, oregano, or cloves is questionable whether it is considered a food, and we separate terumos and maasros without a bracha; if eaten by itself, it does not recite a bracha of borei pri ha’eitz or borei pri ha’adamah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 202:16). What bracha do we recite before smelling a seasoning?
CINNAMON, SPICE AND EVERYTHING NICE
What bracha does one recite before smelling cinnamon?
The Tur quotes a dispute between the Rosh, who contends that the bracha is Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros, and the Maharam, who contends that one should recite Borei atzei besamim. In the Rosh’s opinion, cinnamon should be treated as a food. Thus, we may assume that he contends that the bracha before smelling all spices is Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros, even though they are not eaten by themselves. We can also draw a conclusion from this Rosh that we recite the bracha Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros even on the bark of a tree that is eaten, such as cinnamon. Thus in his opinion, the word ba’peiros in the bracha should be translated as food rather than as fruit. (In truth, the word pri in the bracha Borei pri ha’adamah should also not be translated as fruit, since we recite it on stems, roots, and leaves when we eat celery, carrots, and lettuce.)
On the other hand, the Maharam contends that Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros is inappropriate, presumably because cinnamon is usually not eaten by itself. Alternatively, the Maharam may hold that Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros is inappropriate for cinnamon because it is a bark and not a fruit.
Either way, many Ashkenazi poskim rule it is a safek whether the bracha on cinnamon is Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros or Borei atzei besamim and therefore one should recite borei minei besamim (Eliyah Rabbah 216:9; Mishnah Berurah 216:16). Many Sefardim recite Borei atzei besamim before smelling cinnamon (Yalkut Yosef 216:4). Everyone agrees that the bracha before smelling cinnamon leaf is Borei atzei besamim.
AND THE LEMON SMELLS SO SWEET!
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat! Is the bracha before smelling a lemon Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros because it is after all a fruit, or do we recite a different bracha since it is too bitter to eat by itself?
Some poskim rule that one should recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros before smelling lemons (Ginas Veradim 1:42; Yalkut Yosef 216:7), whereas others contend that one should recited Borei minei besamim before smelling a lemon, treating the lemon as a safek as to whether it is considered a fruit or not (Ketzos Hashulchan 62:9 in Badei Hashulchan).
However, this latter opinion causes one to wonder why the bracha before smelling a lemon is different from the bracha before smelling an esrog? After all, the Gemara teaches that before smelling an esrog we recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros, although an esrog is also too bitter to eat. Possibly, the esrogim in the days of Chazal were less bitter and were edible. This is implied by the Gemara (Sukkah 36b), which mentions that Rav Chanina took a bite out of his esrog, something difficult to imagine doing to a contemporary esrog.
An alternative approach is that an esrog is a fruit because it can be made edible by adding sugar. However according to this reason, a lemon should also be considered a fruit, since one can eat candied lemon, which I presume would require the bracha of Borei pri ha’eitz (Vezos Ha’beracha pg. 366). Similarly, some people eat the slice of lemon they used to season their tea, and lemon is also eaten as a pudding or pie filling. I presume that the bracha on these items when eaten alone would be Borei pri ha’eitz. The fact that lemon cannot be eaten unsweetened should not affect what bracha we recite before eating or smelling lemon just as the bracha before smelling fresh quince is Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros even though it is also not edible raw.
Furthermore, we noted above that Chazal instituted the bracha Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros on fragrant fruits and foods because one cannot recite a bracha on them by calling them fragrances. Few people would describe lemon as a fragrance, but as a fruit.
Because of these reasons, I believe the bracha before smelling a lemon should be Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros, but I leave it for the individual to ask their rav a shaylah.
Incidentally, the correct bracha to recite before smelling citrus blossoms or flowers is Borei atzei besamim, since the flower is not edible.
As a side point, one should be very cautious about eating esrog today. Esrog is not a food crop and it is legal to spray the trees with highly toxic pesticides. Because of the rule of chamira sakanta mi’isurah (the halachos of danger are stricter than that of kashrus), I would paskin that it is prohibited to eat esrogim today unless the owner of the orchard will vouch for their safety. Thus, although Aunt Zelda may have a great recipe for making esrog jam, substitute lemon or lime instead. Incidentally, the bracha on eating lemon jam should be Borei pri ha’eitz, which is additional evidence that the bracha before smelling a lemon is Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros.
There is a major shaylah in halacha whether one may smell one’s esrog and hadasim during Sukkos. I have written a separate article on this subject.
EATING AND SMELLING A FRUIT
If I am eating a fragrant fruit, do I recite a bracha before I smell it even though I am not deliberately trying to?
One does not recite the bracha on fragrance if one is picking up the fruit to eat and happens to smell it at the same time (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 216:2). However, if one intends both to smell the food and also to eat it, then it would seem to be a question of dispute whether one should recites both brachos, Borei pri ha’eitz and Hanosein Rei’ach Tov ba’peiros. This issue is dependent on a dispute between poskim whether one recites a bracha on a fragrant item that is intended to be used for another purpose. I analyzed this subject in a different article in which I discussed when one should not recite a bracha before smelling a fragrance.
WHICH BRACHA SHOULD I RECITE FIRST?
The poskim disagree as to whether one should first recite the bracha on eating the fruit because one gains a more significant benefit than from smelling it (Olas Tamid), or whether one should first recite the bracha on smelling it, since one will smell the fruit before he eats it (Eliyahu Rabbah 216:6). The Mishnah Berurah (216:10) rules that one should recite the bracha on smelling the fruit first, although he also cites another suggestion: have in mind not to benefit from the fragrance until after one has recited the bracha on eating it and has tasted the fruit. Then, recite Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros and benefit from the fragrance.
Many poskim state that the custom today is to not make a bracha on smelling a fruit unless it has a pronounced aroma (see Vezos Haberacha pg. 174). For this reason some hold that one should not make a bracha when smelling an apple since apples are often not that fragrant, but one could recite a bracha when smelling guava which is usually much more aromatic. (However, note that Rambam and Mishnah Berurah [216:8] mentions reciting a bracha before smelling an apple, although it is possible that the apples they had were more fragrant than ours.)
The Gemara (Berachos 43b) teaches “How do we know that one must recite a bracha on a fragrance, because the pasuk (Tehillim 150:6) says, ‘Every neshamah praises Hashem,’ – What exists in the world that the soul benefits from, but not the body? Only fragrance.”
Although the sense of smell provides some physical pleasure, it provides no nutritional benefit. Thus, smell represents an interface of the spiritual with the physical. Similarly, we find that we are to offer korbanos as rei’ach nicho’ach, a fragrance demonstrating one’s desire to be close to Hashem. We should always utilize our abilities to smell fragrant items as a stepping stone towards greater mitzvah observance and spirituality.
The author acknowledges the tremendous assistance provided by Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky for the horticultural information used in researching this article.