When Do We Not Make a Bracha on a Fragrance?

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This article was originally published in the American edition of Yated Neeman

Question #1: My neighbor has a wonderfully fragrant garden. Do I recite a bracha whenever I visit her and walk through the garden, and if so, which bracha?

Question #2: On my way to work I pass a spice factory that has a wonderful aroma. Do I recite a bracha every day as I drive by?

Question #3: Someone told me not to recite a bracha on regular perfume today because it is synthetic. Is this true?

Question #4: I just adore the smell of turpentine! Do I make a bracha when I smell it?

In general one should not benefit from a pleasant aroma without first reciting a bracha. Nevertheless, not all fragrances require a bracha before we smell them. Furthermore, when a bracha is not required, it is forbidden to recite one.

Fragrances upon which one may not recite a bracha 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 (Biyur Halacha 217:3), or when you enjoy the smell of an empty besamim box.

I. FORBIDDEN FRAGRANCES

One does not recite a bracha on a fragrance that it is forbidden to smell, such as a scent used in idol worship, or sorcery, or the perfume of an ervah (Rambam, Hilchos Berachos 9:7, based on Gemara 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 bracha on them.

One does not recite a bracha before smelling these prohibited fragrances even if a small amount is mixed into a potpourri of other fragrances (Biyur Halacha 217:8; cf. Gra ad loc. who implies that if most of the fragrance is from a different source, one should recite a bracha before smelling it. However this is very strange, because the Torah forbids smelling the entire fragrance whenever the prohibited source is discernable.)

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 baal korcho, “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 (Gemara Pesachim 25b).

II. FRAGRANCES WHOSE PURPOSE IS NOT TO PROVIDE THE PLEASURE OF SMELLING

“One does not make a bracha on a fragrance unless it was made for the pleasure of smelling,” (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 217:2). One only recites a bracha on a fragrance that is avida lireicha, 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 bracha 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 (Gemara 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 bracha.

One does not recite a bracha 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 the deodorizer (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 bracha before smelling these fragrances?

It depends on why one smells them. If they are functioning as deodorants, then one does not recite a bracha, whereas someone who uses the oil with the intent of enjoying its aroma does recite the appropriate bracha before smelling it (Gemara Berachos 53a with Rashi). (See my other articles on this subject to know which bracha 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 bracha or not?

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, then it is besamim and you recite a bracha. If you brought the fragrance to neutralize an odor, then you do not recite a bracha even if you smell it for pleasure.

However, if you removed some of the fragrance permanently to enjoy its aroma, this part becomes besamim and warrants a bracha. 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 bracha on the sprinkled oil.

IIB. INCIDENTAL TO PURPOSE

We learned above that one does not recite a bracha 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 bracha on this fragrance. Why not?

The halacha is that someone who enters a spice merchant’s store recites a bracha because the owner wants customers to smell his wares so that they will make a purchase (Gemara Berachos 53a). If these items are in his warehouse where he is not soliciting customers, one does not recite a bracha (Magen Avraham 217:1).

Why do you recite a bracha on the spices in his store but not those that are 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 lireicha 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 bracha. 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 bracha 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 lireicha for one person but not for another?

Poskim dispute this question, many ruling that the merchant should recite a bracha since the fragrance has the status of avida lireicha. Others contend that for the merchant the fragrances are merchandise and not avida lireicha and therefore he should not recite a bracha (Mishnah Berurah 217:4; Shaar Hatziyun 217:7).

Other poskim present a different reason why the merchant should not recite a bracha on the fragrance. The Taz (217:1) contends that one recites a bracha over a fragrance only if one demonstrates that he wants to smell it, such as by picking up the fragrance and raising it to his nose. The customer who enters the shop recites a bracha 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, and therefore he recites a bracha. 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 would not recite a bracha.

On the other hand, most poskim contend that once a fragrance qualifies as avida lireicha, one recites a bracha over it even if one is not specifically trying to smell it (Pri Megadim MZ 217:1; Shaar Hatziyun 217:4). Thus, the poskim dispute whether the merchant himself recites a bracha. Later in the article we will suggest an approach whereby he can avoid a safek bracha completely.

The same dispute also applies to the neighbors of the perfumery, its workers, and people making deliveries to the shop. According to the Taz’s opinion, only the customers recite a bracha on the magnificent fragrance of the shop since they come to smell and purchase. Also, if you entered the store to enjoy the fragrance, you recite a bracha 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 bracha 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 bracha?

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 or you pick it up or you put some into your hand, you should recite a bracha. Any act makes the fragrance avida lireicha.

However the Chazon Ish disagrees, maintaining that if you will return the fragrance it is not avida lireicha and you do not make a bracha (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, then one does recite a bracha.

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, then you recite a bracha 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 bracha on this fragrance unless you do not intend to cook with it later. (See Shmiras 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 bracha on that. Since you are not going to use this spice for cooking, it is besamim and one recites a bracha 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 Motzei Shabbos (Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchasah, Vol. 2 pg. 262). Why do people do this? Couldn’t you just use a fragrant kitchen spice for the bracha?

However according to the Chazon Ish, one does not recite a bracha 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 bracha.

THE GARDEN

At the beginning of the article I asked, “My neighbor has a wonderfully fragrant garden. Do I recite a bracha whenever I visit her, and if so, which bracha?” We are now prepared to answer this question.

The fragrant garden itself is avida lireicha since the owner or gardener presumably planted it wanting to benefit from the beautiful aroma. Do we therefore recite a bracha upon entering the garden? According to most poskim, one would recite the bracha upon entering the garden even if he is not entering the garden to enjoy the aroma at all, since it is avida lireicha. The bracha 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 bracha only if he wants to smell the fragrance. In order to avoid this shaylah, one should have in mind before entering the garden that one is entering the garden to enjoy the fragrance and recite a bracha immediately before entering the garden, just as one recites a bracha immediately before eating a delicious fruit.

Similarly, someone whose house is permeated with aromatic flowers should recite a bracha 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 bracha before entering the house. According to the Mishnah Berurah we quoted above, one should recite the appropriate bracha (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 bracha 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 bracha 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 bracha 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 bracha before entering. This case is similar to an interesting dispute that we find in earlier poskim.

THE PHARMACY

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 bracha before entering the apothecary shop just as the Gemara says that one recites a bracha before entering the besamim seller’s store.

Some poskim rule that one should recite a bracha 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 Biyur 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 lireicha.

The Mishnah Berurah (Biyur 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 bracha. However, he points out two other reasons why one should be careful before reciting a bracha.

1. That according to the Taz (mentioned above) one does not recite a bracha unless one intends to smell the fragrance.

2. One should recite a bracha only if the fragrances are open. However, if the herbs are all closed in bags, but the air is fragrant from the previously opened bags, this is considered a rei’ach she’ayn lo ikar, upon which one does not recite a bracha.

Thus upon entering a fragrant fruit store, one should recite Hanosein Rei’ach Tov Ba’peiros 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 bracha 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 bracha.

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 bracha before smelling such an item.

Examples: The poskim dispute whether one recites a bracha on freshly baked bread. Those who contend that one does not recite this bracha is because they feel that this is not a significant fragrance to warrant a bracha (Beis Yosef 216; Rama). 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 bracha even if you enjoy it.

TURPENTINE

Question #4 above, a shaylah someone recently asked me, was: “I just adore the smell of turpentine! Do I make a bracha when I smell it?”

Dear reader, how would you 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 bracha before smelling it.

III Ayn lo ikar – A fragrance whose source no longer exists.

In the case mentioned above where one burns incense to impart aroma onto clothing or pots, one does not recite a bracha on the clothing afterwards because the fragrance has no ikar (Rambam, Hilchos Brachos 9:8). For this reason, one does not recite a bracha 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

(Biyur Halacha 217:3).

SYNTHETIC FRAGRANCES

Some poskim contend that one does not make a bracha on a synthetic fragrance (Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, quoted in Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchasah, Vol. 2, Pg. 263 note 32). Apparently, they hold that one can only recite a bracha on a fragrance whose source was originally besamim. However most poskim dispute this ruling, contending that 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 bracha on a different fragrance whose bracha 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 Ba’peiros on cloves and Borei Atzei Besamim on cinnamon.)

As a quick review, we do not recite a bracha on the following categories of fragrances:

Those that we are not permitted to smell.

Deodorizers

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 bracha on a synthetic fragrance.

EXPRESSIVE 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 the halachos of brachos on fragrances correctly demonstrates a small expression on our part to praise Hashem for even His small kindnesses to us.

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