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Berakha Upon Aroma (I)

Rav Moshe Taragin
In memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
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Having firmly established the rule of reciting a berakha (blessing) upon food, the gemara in Berakhot (43a) describes berakhot recited upon appealing aromas. The gemara differentiates between aromas which emanate from branched items (tree twigs and other branches) which receives a berakha of 'atzei besamim' (fragrant trees), those aromas which emerge from herbs and grasses which dictate 'isvei besamim' (fragrant herbage) and general aromas from all other substances which require a generic berakha of 'minei besamim' (species of fragrance).

An initial query of the gemara immediately highlights an important structural feature of this berakha. When relating to berakhot recited upon the aroma of incense, the gemara asserts that the berakha should be recited as soon as the column of smoke rises. At this stage, the gemara wonders how a berakha can be recited without sniffing the actual aroma!! The gemara immediately responds that berakhot upon food are typically recited BEFORE the actual partaking of that food and similarly a berakha upon aroma should not be contingent upon actually whiffing that aroma. Though the gemara's conclusion is compelling, we are left wondering as to its preliminary assertion demanding actual sniffing prior to reciting a berakha. Why, in effect, should this berakha deviate from standard birkhot ha-nehenin (blessing recited prior to enjoying something, such as a food item) upon food which is recited prior to any tasting??

Perhaps the gemara is probing the correspondence between a berakha upon food and a berakha upon pleasant aroma. Are aromas treated by halakha as equivalent to food items and do we deem the pleasure itself as tangible enough to require a food-like berakha? If we truly equate the pleasure from aroma to the pleasure from food and each requires a similar berakha PRIOR to partaking to authorize the receipt of 'enjoyment' (matir see shiur #17), then indeed the timing of a berakha upon aroma would be identical to the scheduling of a berakha upon food (as the gemara ultimately concludes). However, the gemara suggests that aroma is not considered a pleasure which mandates a berakha to authorize it (matir) since its pleasure is too ethereal. Instead, a berakha recited upon aroma is meant merely to praise Hashem in response to the overall aesthetics of the experience (birkhat ha-shevach). As this praise is submitted in response to the experience, it should be delayed till AFTER the sensation has begun, tempting the gemara toward this option. The preliminary debate regarding the schedule of the berakha may reflect a more inherent question as to the essence of a berakha upon aroma.

Searching for a source for a berakha upon aroma, the gemara cites the pasuk "kol ha-neshama t'hallel kah halelukah" ("let all souls praise God, Haleluka”) (Tehilim 150:6) as mandating a berakha even upon items which the soul enjoys (assuming that food benefits the body while aroma affects our spirit). By defending 'pleasure of the spirit' and bolstering this position with a pasuk, does the gemara intend to establish aroma as a halakhic pleasure akin to food, and demanding of a berakha? Or is this source merely a general 'image' invoked by the gemara to substantiate the notion of any form of berakha upon the intangible?

Assuredly, even though the gemara rules decisively toward a 'pre-sensation' berakha, and mandates a berakha before partaking of the aroma, the basic structural question may remain. Perhaps the berakha is indeed intended only as praise but not meant to authorize any palpable pleasure. However, in an attempt to maintain the consistency of birkhat ha-nehenin, this berakha – as a berakha upon food, is affixed BEFORE the actual benefit commences. When the gemara ultimately cites food-based berakhot as the reason for scheduling berakhot upon aromas, is it comparing the two at an essential level or merely imposing 'scheduling protocol' upon all berakhot to assure their uniformity?

Though the gemara concludes that a berakha is recited prior to experiencing the aroma, the actual nature of the berakha and its correspondence to food may prompt an interesting issue about the timing of the berakha. Can a berakha be recited AFTER smelling the aroma if it was not recited earlier? This question (raised by the Pri Megadim in his initial comments to the Magen Avraham's essays upon OC 216) would presumably be affected by the halakhic structure of the berakha. If the berakha is similar to the berakha upon food, then just like it would be scheduled PRIOR to the experience it would also be pointless after the experience has concluded (as the gemara decides regarding food itself which upon which no berakha is recited if the food has been completely consummated - see Berakhot 51a). If, however, the berakha upon aroma is a shevach recited upon the experience of a favorable aroma, though protocol may demand that it ideally be recited prior to the experience, it would certainly be suitable to recite it afterwards as well (if it were not recited earlier).

Linguistically, the presentation of the halakha in the Shulchan Arukh may also be revealing. When depicting the source of a berakha upon food, the gemara in Berakhot employs the term "assur leihanot mei'ha-olam hazeh bli berakha" (it is forbidden to receive [food] benefit from this world without first reciting a berakha). (Berakhot 35a) This very powerful language clearly establishes THAT berakha as a matir. Intriguingly, the gemarot which outline the laws of berakha upon aroma do not apply this language perhaps in refusal to deem aroma a palpable enough experience to require a matir. Yet the Shulchan Arukh does borrow the language of 'assur' from the gemara's description of food and applies it to aroma as well. (OC 216:1) Is this intended as a confirmation that aroma is similar to food and also requires a matir?

Undoubtedly, this structural question triggers several interesting subsidiary questions about the recital of a berakha upon aroma. Paramount among the issues debated by the Rishonim is the question of whether a berakha can be recited if the source of the aroma no longer exists. Though the gemara (43a) sought to limit this berakha to certain types of incense, it cites the position of Ze'iri which extends the berakha to all forms of aroma. Most Rishonim believe that all forms of agreeable aromas demand this berakha. However the Ritva claims that even Ze'iri's extended system does not include incenses whose source no longer exists (for example they have been completely burnt).

This disagreement among the Rishonim surfaces in the continuation of the gemara regarding perfumes and other odorants which were manufactured by distilling aromatic substances in liquid and subsequently, having captured the aroma, filtering out the original source. The same disagreement emerges with the Ritva denying a berakha if the source no longer exists while Rabbenu Yonah and others obligate a berakha. Ultimately, the Shulchan Arukh (OC 216:6) cites each opinion.

In some manner this question may echo the structural issue. Aligning a berakha upon aroma with its counterpart upon food may indeed demand an actual source object upon which the berakha is recited. The gemara itself (38a) disqualifies the blessing of borei pri ha-etz (Who created the fruit of the tree) upon fruit juices, presumably because the fruit itself is not being ingested but rather the 'sweat' (literal translation of the gemara's term zei'ah) of the product. Similarly (see shiur #19) Tosafot denied a mezonot berakha upon beer since it only contains the 'taste' of the original item and not its essence. Evidently the authorization of the pleasure must be recited upon the item which serves as the source of the experience. Coupling berakha upon aroma and food may demand the presence of the source of the aroma in order to allow the berakha.

By contrast, if the berakha upon aroma is merely in praise of the aesthetic experience it would seem to matter little whether the source still exists. This seminal disagreement seemingly touches upon the 'disputed' nature of berakhot upon aromas.

Additional ramifications of this question will I"yH be addressed in the ensuing shiur.

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