In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we find the instructions on how to consecrate Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel, how to create the High Priest’s special garments, and we also learn how to construct the incense altar (and are told to light incense twice daily).
Really? An incense altar?
Why on earth would our ancestors need to construct an incense altar / be commanded to light incense twice daily? What does an “incense offering” really do anyway?
Well, first off, it seems pretty apparent that the fragrance of incense would be a positive addition to a courtyard in which you’d also find the burning carcasses of myriad animal sacrifices.
In addition to the practical, Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi, doctor and philosopher, felt that offering incense also had spiritual implications:
Since many beasts were daily slaughtered in the holy place, the flesh cut in pieces and the entrails and the legs burnt and washed, the smell of the place would undoubtedly have been like the smell of slaughterhouses, if nothing had been done to counteract it. They were therefore commanded to burn incense there twice every day, in the morning and in the evening, in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor. There is a well-known saying of our Sages, "In Jericho they could smell the incense" [burnt in the Temple]. This provision likewise tended to support the dignity of the Temple. If there had not been a good smell, let alone if there had been a stench, it would have produced in the minds of the people the reverse of respect; for our heart generally feels elevated in the presence of good odor, and is attracted by it, but it abhors and avoids bad smell.
Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 3:45.
According to Maimonides, good odors have the ability to elevate our hearts. In addition to this being a strong argument in favor of bathing before going out on a date, it also shows the significant value our tradition places on scent, and its perceived mystic linkages.
We find the first mentioned linkage between the nose and the soul in the Book of Genesis (2:7):
“Then God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
We later learn from the rabbis in the Talmud (Berachot 43b):
“What is something that the soul enjoys but not the body? It is the scent.”
This special connection between scent and soul can also help explain why smelling spices is part of the Havdallah ceremony. We learn in the Talmud (Taanit 27b):
“Reish Lakish said: Man is given an additional soul on Friday, but at the termination of the Sabbath it is taken away from him…”
When Shabbat ends, we’re taught that the extra soul departs, and smelling the spices at Havdallah is meant both to revive us – serving as spiritual smelling salts – and to soothe the remaining soul that is now left alone.
While contemporarily it’s not customary to burn incense in synagogues, are there ways that we can better creatively and effectively use our sense of smell to uplift our souls on a regular basis?
Most of us know what it’s like to smell a Shabbat meal before it's served. (There’s just something about challah baking and chicken soup on the stove that puts one at ease and heightens one's awareness). What prevents us from striving to fill that aspect of our souls every week?
Maybe there’s a special perfume or cologne that you want to set aside for Shabbat, holidays and other special occasions where you want your sense of smell to be particularly heightened in order to have a clearer channel to your heart.
Or maybe, you just want to make sure to Febreze your apartment or home before having company over.
By consciously finding ways to infuse our lives with wonderful scents, we can keep our spiritual avenues open, and like our ancestors before us, connect with the Divine.