The Torah mentions that the caravan on which Yosef was “shipped” to Mitzrayim was laden with pleasant-smelling fragrances…
Question #1: My neighbor has a wonderfully fragrant garden. Do I recite a beracha whenever I visit her and walk through the garden, and, if so, which beracha?
Question #2: On my way to work I pass a spice factory that has a wonderful aroma. Do I recite a beracha every day as I drive by?
Question #3: Someone told me not to recite a beracha on perfume today because the fragrances are synthetic. Is this true?
Question #4: I just adore the smell of turpentine! Do I make a beracha when I smell it?
In general one should not benefit from a pleasant aroma without first reciting a beracha. Nevertheless, not all fragrances require a beracha before we smell them. Furthermore, when a beracha is not required, it is forbidden to recite one.
Fragrances upon which one may not recite a beracha fall under three general categories:
I. Forbidden fragrances
II. Fragrances whose purpose is not for pleasurable smelling.
III. Fragrances whose source no longer exists. This would include a case where you put the fragrance into a closed bag, but can still smell the residual aroma in the air outside the bag (Biur Halacha 217:3), or when you enjoy the smell of an empty besamim box.
I. FORBIDDEN FRAGRANCES
One does not recite a beracha on a fragrance that it is forbidden to smell, such as a scent used in idol worship, sorcery or the perfume of an ervah (Rambam, Hilchos Berachos 9:7, based on Berachos 53a). Smelling something used for idol worship is prohibited because one may not have any benefit from idols. Since we are not permitted to smell these fragrances, it is understood why Chazal ruled that one should not make a beracha on them.
One does not recite a beracha before smelling these prohibited fragrances even if a small amount is mixed into a potpourri of other fragrances (Biur Halacha 217:8; cf. Gra ad loc. who implies that if most of the fragrance is from a different source, one should recite a beracha before smelling it. However this is very strange, because the Torah forbids smelling the entire fragrance whenever the prohibited source is discernible.)
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I PASS AN IDOL AND SMELL INCENSE?
Although this is unusual in America, there are many places in the world where this is a common shaylah. May I walk down this street if I might smell a forbidden fragrance?
According to halacha, I am permitted to walk down the street provided I try not to appreciate the fragrance. The Gemara discusses a category called Hana’ah haba’ah lo le’adam bal karcho, “benefit that a person receives against his will.” Although a person has control over what he eats, he has more limited control over what he smells or hears. If someone is exposed to a pleasurable fragrance that is forbidden according to halacha, there is no violation involved, provided he does not try to enjoy the aroma (Pesachim 25b).
II. FRAGRANCES WHOSE PURPOSE IS NOT TO PROVIDE THE PLEASURE OF SMELLING
“One does not make a beracha on a fragrance unless it was made for the pleasure of smelling” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 217:2). One recites a beracha on a fragrance only when it is avida le’reicha, literally, “made for fragrance.”In the words of the Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 35:1), “Anything that it not specifically meant to smell is not considered a fragrance.” Thus, the definition of the word besamim is something made to provide pleasurable scent and does not include aromas not meant for smelling.
There are several headings of aromatic fragrances that are not for the pleasure of smelling. They include:
A. Deodorizing fragrances
B. Fragrances whose current purpose is not for their aroma.
C. Fragrances whose purpose is to provide aroma to something else.
D. Items that most people do not consider fragrances.
IIA. DEODORIZING FRAGRANCES
One does not recite a beracha before smelling a fragrance whose purpose is to neutralize a bad odor, such as a room deodorizer, deodorant, or oil rubbed on the skin to dispel malodor (Berachos 53a). Even though these items may be highly aromatic, since their purpose is not for enjoyment but to neutralize an unpleasant odor, we do not recite a beracha.
One does not recite a beracha before smelling a room deodorizer, even if he enjoys the aroma and even if he sprayed it in a room without a bad odor or brings it to his nose for a pleasant whiff. Since the deodorizer was made expressly to dispel malodor and not for enjoyment, it is not considered besamim even if the individual enjoys smelling it (Shaar Hatziyun 217:16, based on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 297:2).
USING OILS AS A DEODORIZER
Some people use pleasant-smelling essential oils to combat malodors. Does one make a beracha before smelling these fragrances?
It depends on why one smells them. If they are functioning as deodorants, then one does not recite a beracha, whereas someone who uses the oil with the intent of enjoying its aroma does recite the appropriate beracha before smelling it (Berachos 53a with Rashi). (See my other articles on this subject on the website RabbiKaganoff.com to know which beracha one recites.)
WHAT DETERMINES WHETHER A FRAGRANCE IS BESAMIM OR A DEODORIZER?
Some items are obviously deodorants or deodorizers and are not besamim. However, the essential oils we mentioned and other fragrances may sometimes be used to deodorize and sometimes for pleasure. What determines whether this particular fragrance is besamim over which we recite a beracha?
The Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 35:2) explains that the determining factor is why you brought the fragrance to this location. If you brought it for pleasure, it is besamim and you recite a beracha. If you brought the fragrance to neutralize an odor, you do not recite a beracha, even if you are smelling it because you enjoy it.
However, if you removed some of the fragrance permanently to enjoy its aroma, this part becomes besamim and warrants a beracha. The Chazon Ish uses the example of someone who applies fragrant oil to his or her skin. Even if the person originally used the oil to deodorize, if he subsequently sprinkled some onto a handkerchief to enjoy the aroma, he recites a beracha on the sprinkled oil.
IIB. INCIDENTAL TO PURPOSE
We learned above that one does not recite a beracha before smelling a fragrance whose current purpose is not for its aroma. What does this mean?
Imagine yourself outside the production facility of the world’s largest manufacturer of flavors and fragrances. The aroma outside this plant is indescribable — I can tell you because I have been there. Yet the halacha is that one does not recite a beracha on this fragrance. Why not?
The halacha is that someone who enters a spice merchant’s store recites a beracha because the owner wants potential customers to smell his wares so that they will make a purchase (Berachos 53a). If these items are in his warehouse where he is not soliciting customers, one does not recite a beracha (Magen Avraham 217:1).
Why do you recite a beracha on the spices in his store but not those in his warehouse? Because the fragrances in the store are there to be smelled and enjoyed; the ones in the warehouse are not. Thus, the fragrances in the warehouse are not avida le’reicha and are not besamim.
Thus, smelling the most fantastic aroma in the world, from the production facility of the world’s largest manufacturer of pleasant flavors and fragrances, does not warrant a beracha. These fragrances do not qualify as besamim since they are not there for people to enjoy their aroma.
THE SPICE MERCHANT HIMSELF
Does the spice seller himself recite a beracha upon entering his own shop? He does not enter intending to smell fragrant spices in order to decide what to buy. He enters because it is his livelihood. Can a fragrance be avida le’reicha for one person but not for another?
Poskim dispute this question, many ruling that the merchant should recite a beracha since the fragrance has the status of avida le’reicha. Others contend that, for the merchant, the fragrances are merchandise and not avida le’reicha,and therefore he should not recite a beracha (Mishnah Berurah 217:4; Shaar Hatziyun 217:7).
Other poskim present a different reason why the merchant should not recite a beracha on the fragrance. The Taz (217:1) contends that someone recites a beracha over a fragrance only when they demonstrate a desire to smell it, such as by picking up the fragrance and raising it to their nose. The customer who enters the shop recites a beracha because he walked into the shop intending to smell and purchase fragrances — thus, his entry is itself demonstration that he wants to smell the spices; therefore, he recites a beracha. However, the owner’s entry does not demonstrate intent to smell the product. According to this opinion, someone who makes a delivery to a perfumery does not recite a beracha.
On the other hand, most poskim contend that a fragrance that qualifies as avida le’reicha requires a beracha even when not trying to smell it (Pri Megadim MZ 217:1; Shaar Hatziyun 217:4). Later in the article, I will suggest an approach whereby a safek beracha can be avoided.
The same dispute also applies to the neighbors of the perfumery, its workers, and those making deliveries to the shop. According to the Taz’s opinion, only the customers recite a beracha on the magnificent fragrance of the shop, since they come to smell and purchase. Also, if you entered the store specifically to enjoy the fragrance, you recite a beracha according to all opinions.
PUTTING INTO YOUR HAND
Let’s assume you are back in the spice merchant’s warehouse or in the flavor factory and you know that you do not make a beracha on the incredible fragrance that is wafting through the air. What happens if you approach some of the spices to take a pleasant whiff or you lift some of the fragrance in order to smell it? Do you recite a beracha?
The poskim dispute what to do in this case. The Mishnah Berurah (217:1) contends that whenever you do something to smell the fragrance, such as you move towards the fragrance, you lift it up or you place some into your hand, you should recite a beracha. Any act makes the fragrance avida le’reicha.
However the Chazon Ish disagrees, maintaining that, if you will return the fragrance, it is not avida le’reicha and you do not make a beracha (Chazon Ish, Orach Chayim 35:1). The Chazon Ish agrees that if the manufacturer has samples available because he wants people to smell and buy, one does recite a beracha on these samples.
SPICES IN THE KITCHEN
There is a common practical difference in halacha between the approaches of these two gedolim regarding spices in the kitchen. Suppose you want to enjoy the smell of the cinnamon or the oregano on your kitchen shelf. According to the Mishnah Berurah, if you remove a container to smell it, you recite a beracha on the spice, even though you intend to return the spice to the shelf after smelling it. However according to the Chazon Ish, you do not recite a beracha on this fragrance unless you do not intend to cook with it later. (See Shemiras Shabbos K’Hilchasah, Vol. 2, Pg. 262). Someone who wants to avoid the dispute would sprinkle a little bit of spice into his hand and make a beracha on that. Since you are not going to use this spice for cooking, it is besamim according to all opinions and one recites a beracha before smelling it.
Some poskim explain that this opinion of the Chazon Ish is the reason for the widespread minhag to set aside special besamim for havdalah on Motza’ei Shabbos (Shemiras ShabbosKehilchasah, Vol. 2 pg. 262). This is because, according to the Chazon Ish, one does not recite a beracha on a kitchen spice if one intends to cook with it. Only if one removed some of the spice from kitchen use and set it aside for besamim does that spice warrant a beracha.
At the beginning of the article I asked, “My neighbor has a wonderfully fragrant garden. Do I recite a beracha whenever I visit her, and, if so, which beracha?” We are now prepared to answer this question.
The fragrant garden itself is avida le’reicha since the owner or gardener presumably planted it in order to benefit from the beautiful aroma. Do we therefore recite a beracha upon entering the garden? According to most poskim, since it is avida le’reicha, one would recite the beracha upon entering the garden, even if he is not entering to enjoy the aroma at all. The beracha will depend on what is growing in the garden, but assuming that there are items growing with different brachos, one should recite Borei Minei Besamim.
However according to the Taz, one recites a beracha only if he wants to smell the fragrance. In order to avoid this shaylah, he should have in mind before entering the garden that he is entering the garden to enjoy the fragrance and recite a beracha immediately before entering the garden, just as one recites a beracha immediately before eating a delicious fruit.
Similarly, someone whose house is permeated with aromatic flowers should recite a beracha before entering the house, since the flowers were acquired with the intention of making the house pleasantly fragrant. However, if the flowers are there only for beauty and their owner was not concerned with their fragrance, then one does not recite a beracha before entering the house. According to the Mishnah Berurah we quoted above, one should recite the appropriate beracha (either Borei Atzei Besamim or Borei Isvei Besamim) before smelling an individual flower. According to the Chazon Ish, it would seem that one should not recite a beracha unless he removed a leaf or trimming from the flowers that he wants to smell.
THE FRUIT MARKET AND THE CONFECTIONER
Does one recite a beracha when entering a fragrant fruit market, since smelling the delicious fruit may entice one to make a purchase? The same question applies to a confectionary store: Does one recite a beracha before entering this store since the delicious smell of all the sweets may entice the customer to purchase?
If indeed the owner feels that the fragrance of his wares encourages people to buy them, then one should recite a beracha before entering. This case is similar to an interesting dispute that we find in earlier poskim.
In earlier days, a pharmacy was a store in which the apothecary sold raw herbs for their medicinal value. The poskim ask whether one recites a beracha before entering the apothecary shop, just as the Gemara says that one recites a beracha before entering the besamim seller’s store.
Some poskim rule that one should recite a beracha before entering a pharmacy because the permeating fragrance encourages people to purchase herbs. Other poskim disagree for an interesting reason — people do not purchase medicinal herbs because of fragrance, but for medical need (see Biur Halacha 217:1). Thus, since healthy people do not make purchases even if the herbs smell pleasant, and sick people will buy even if the herbs are not fragrant, no one is deciding to buy because of the fragrance. Therefore, these herbs are not avida le’reicha.
The Biur Halacha (217:1) compromises between the two positions quoted above. In his opinion, if people use the fragrance to find the location of the store, that is reason enough to make a beracha. However, he points out two other reasons why one should be careful before reciting a beracha.
1. According to the Taz (mentioned above) one does not recite a beracha unless one intends to smell the fragrance.
2. One should recite a beracha only if the fragrances are open. However, if the herbs are all in closed bags, but the air is fragrant from when the bags had been open previously, this is considered a rei’ach she’ein lo ikar, upon which one does not recite a beracha.
Thus upon entering a fragrant fruit store, one should recite Hanosein Rei’ach Tov Bapeiros and then intend to enjoy the fragrance, since the fruits are always out in the open to encourage people to buy them.
It is uncertain whether the same halacha applies to a florist’s shop. Flowers today are not cultivated for fragrance, and most people purchase flowers because of beauty, not fragrance. However, if there is a florist who feels that customers purchase because of fragrance, one should recite Borei Minei Besamim and enjoy the fragrance.
IIC. Fragrances whose purpose is to provide aroma to something else.
In the time of Chazal, it was common to burn incense in order to give clothing or dishes a pleasant fragrance. The Gemara (Berachos 53a) mentions that one does not recite a beracha when smelling this beautiful aroma because its purpose is not for the fragrance itself.
When showing a house for sale, some people toast cinnamon in the oven or open essential oils and other fragrances around the house to make the house more appealing. Since the purpose of these fragrances is to give the house a pleasant aroma and not to entice people either to smell or to purchase the fragrance, one does not recite a beracha.
IID. Items that most people do not consider fragrances.
There are items that some people enjoy smelling, but most people do not consider fragrant. One should not recite a beracha before smelling such an item.
Examples: The poskim dispute whether one recites a beracha on freshly baked bread. Those who contend that a beracha is ont recited opine that this is not a fragrance significant enough to warrant a beracha (Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 216; Rema). Thus, some people enjoy smelling certain plants or herbs whereas other people do not. If most people do not consider a particular smell to be a fragrance, you should not recite a beracha even if you enjoy it.
Question #4 above, was: “I just adore the smell of turpentine! Do I make a beracha when I smell it?”
Dear reader, how would you please answer this shaylah?
Perfumeries do not sell turpentine as a fragrance. Hardware stores sell it as a solvent and paint thinner. Many people consider the odor of turpentine pungent and not fragrant. Since most people do not consider turpentine to be a fragrance, one should not recite a beracha before smelling it.
III. Ein lo ikar – A fragrance whose source no longer exists.
In the case mentioned above where one burns incense to impart aroma onto clothing ordishes, one does not recite a beracha on the clothing afterwards, because the fragrance has no ikar (Rambam, Hilchos Brachos 9:8). For this reason, one does not recite a beracha on a bag that has a pleasant smell because it once held fragrance, or when you can still smell the residual aroma that is in the air after a spice has been put into a closed bag
(Biur Halacha 217:3).
Some poskim contend that one does not make a beracha on a synthetic fragrance (Rav Shelomoh Zalman Auerbach, quoted in Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasah, Vol. 2, Pg. 263 note 32). Apparently, they hold that one can recite a beracha only on a fragrance whose source was originally besamim. However most poskim dispute this ruling, contending that a fragrance should not be different from a “synthetic food” — a food made from a non-food substance, such as alcohol or vinegar whose source is petrochemical — which is very common today.
This situation is very common today, since most inexpensive fragrances and perfumes are synthetic. Because of the above dispute, if I have a reason to smell a synthetic fragrance I try to recite a beracha on a different fragrance whose beracha is Borei Minei Besamim, such as cloves or cinnamon, and thereby be motzi the synthetic fragrance. (Neither of these options will work for Sefardim, since they usually recite Hanosein Rei’ach Tov Bapeiros oncloves and Borei Atzei Besamim on cinnamon.)
As a quick review, we do not recite a beracha on the following categories of fragrances:
Those that we are not permitted to smell.
If the fragrance is incidental to the item’s main purpose or if it provides aroma to something else.
Items that most people do not consider fragrances.
Where one does not smell the source of the fragrance.
Some poskim hold that we should not recite a beracha on a synthetic fragrance.
In a monumental essay, Rav Hirsch (Breishis 8:21) explains that the expression rei’ach nicho’ach, usually translated as “a pleasant fragrance,” should more accurately be rendered “an expression of compliance.” He demonstrates that the word nicho’ach means “giving satisfaction,” and the concept of rei’ach is used because fragrance implies receiving a very slight impression of something that is distant. Thus, when a korban is offered as a rei’ach nicho’ach, it means that it shows a small expression of our fulfilling Hashem’s will. Similarly, our attempt to observe correctly the halachos of brachos on fragrances demonstrates a small expression on our part to praise Hashem for even His small kindnesses to us.