In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust evokes the power of smell to convey us to a time and place. This “Madeleine Effect” calls forth not just a single memory, but unleashes a flood of emotion, memory, and nostalgia. Smell predates verbal memories, beginning in the womb, but it defies easy description. Although we can detect over 10,000 different scents, we are hard-pressed to describe a particular smell. There’s no scent equivalent for the manifold azure, aquamarine, cerulean, cobalt, lapis, for blue.
When my children were little, before they understood about time and how to mark its passage, they’d come home on Friday afternoons, sniff the air and say, “It’s Shabbat tonight!” Judaism has its stirring sights and sounds, but its smells are no less important. The perfumes of the Shabbat food; the citrusy scent of the Sukkot etrog; the sinus-clearing sharpness of Passover maror; the besamim of Havdalah. These smells work their way into our minds and hearts, enfolding within them a panorama of images, emotions, memories.
Smell is also connected to intuition and instinct, that “sixth sense” that people credit for hunches and feelings not based on logic. The vomeronasal organ allows us to sense non-odorant scents such as the pheromones that signal fear and attraction. Knowing without logic, sensing without scent – what’s the connection? When G-d created Adam, “He blew into his nostrils a life-giving soul.” The bond between smell and the soul remains, as seen in their common root: rei'ach and ru'ach – scent and spirit.
During Havdalah we inhale the scent of the sweet spices, breathing in the spirit of Shabbat, implanting within us knowledge of G-d that is beyond logic, and sustaining us for the week ahead.