This essay, which draws on a Hasidic teaching from the Sfat Emet, is a companion piece to David Aladjem’s poem “A Scent of the Soul.”
Purim is a holiday that rouses the senses. We engage in the mitzvah of hearing the megillah chanted aloud, we eat symbolic foods like hamentashen, we watch colorful costume parades, and we reach out and touch others through sharing Purim gifts, called mishloach manot.
The one sense unaccounted for is smell.
Smell is the hidden sense of Purim. It is also the most essential, which befits Megillat Esther, in which the most significant parts of the story are hidden.
The Talmud states: “Rava said that one is obligated to make oneself intoxicated (l’bsumei) on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’” (B.T. Megillah 7b).
Yehuda Leib Alter, a late 19th-century Hasidic master known as Sfat Emet, makes the connection that the word l’bsumei shares a root with bisamim (fragrance/scent). This demonstrates that, through our sense of smell, we are able to blur the boundaries of knowing the villain from the hero of the Esther narrative, entering into a different type of consciousness in which duality does not exist.
The quintessential symbol for this type of God-consciousness is found in Gan Eden. Here, division and separation from Source do not exist, and all creatures live in peace and harmony. Yet, once humans eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are expelled from God-consciousness and enter a compartmentalized, complex, and challenging world that we inhabit today. To attain the perspective of Gan Eden, it is not surprising that we might need to become intoxicated to go beyond our rational mind and ego into a new level of consciousness.
Both Mordechai and Esther, the two heroes of the story, are compared to scents.
The Talmud explains that Mordechai’s name can be found in parsha Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:23), which states God’s command to Moses to create a fragrant oil of spices that will anoint and consecrate the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting), the ark, the altar, lampstand, table and utensils. This sacred oil’s first ingredient is mar deror or myrrh. In Aramaic, mar deror translates to mira dachyia, which, when said with a bit of an accent and a slight slurring of the tongue, sounds remarkably like Mordechai (B.T. Chullin 139b). Although a winding path of logic, Mordechai’s connection to the sense of smell showcases the power of his holy perfume, which had the ability to help save the Jewish People in the Purim story.
Esther’s connection to scents can be seen through her Hebrew name, Hadassah (B.T. Megilla 10b), derived from the word hadas, meaning myrtle, which is one of the four species used on Sukkot, particularly prized for its fragrance (B.T. Sukkot 37b). However, her given name of Esther – אסתר – comes from the root meaning hidden, and contains an even more nuanced relationship to scent, God, and Gan Eden.
When spelled backwards, these letters represent the initials of the words for rosh (head/top), toch (middle), and sof (end). These are combined with the letter aleph, which is not only the beginning of the Aleph Bet, but moreover, serves as a euphemism for God’s holy four letter name. In gematria, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) numerically equals 26, as does the letter aleph, when viewed through its parts: א is comprised of a yud (10) on either side of a vav (6), making 10+10+6 = 26. Esther’s name symbolizes a God consciousness that goes beyond the confines of time and space.
The Hebrew word, emet (truth), shares the same sense of timelessness found in the word Esther. Containing an aleph (the first letter), mem (the middle letter) and taf (the final letter) of the Hebrew alphabet, emet conveying a truth that goes beyond human conceptions, limitations, and preconceived notions. Perhaps that is why we recite the name YHWH with the word emet twice daily after the third paragraph of the shema, proclaiming: “Adonai Eloheichem Emet” –YHWH, your God is truth! Esther reminds us of God’s truth that transcends time and space, which is hidden – yet present – in all creation.
This hidden truth is the God consciousness of Gan Eden. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov writes that the sense of smell was the only one of the senses unaffected by the sin of the snake in Gan Eden (B’nei Yisachar, Mamrei Chodesh, Sivan 4). His proof text is Genesis 3:6-8, in which we learn that “the woman saw….she took…he ate…they heard”. However, smell is not included in these narrative descriptions.
Thus, only through smell, we can once again attain that state of God consciousness. Each week, we are invited into that opportunity through the ritual of havdalah. After reciting, “…and for the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16), we continue by offering brachot, including one that expressing our gratitude to God for “borei minei v’samim,” creating species of fragrance.
The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 297:1) explains that we smell these sweet spices in an attempt to comfort ourselves from the sadness of losing our nishama yitera (additional soul, B. T. Taanit 27b), which enriches our capacity to experience the love, unity, and peace of Shabbat, our mini-taste of Gan Eden each week. These spices have the ability to arouse within us the knowledge and conscious memory that the God-consciousness is ever-present all week long, even if it is often hidden from our view.
Scientists confirm that the olfactory receptors are our oldest sense and are most highly connected to our emotions and memory. This is why the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or a beloved’s perfume, can elicit memories and emotions quicker and more intensely than our other senses.
As we smell, chemicals and air enter our nose and connect to our brain, allowing us to remember that which we might otherwise forget. Smells guide us back to Gan Eden, to a place in which the duality of “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” do not exist. This place, beyond our rational mind, requires that we become l’bsumei, intoxicated with a fragrance powerful enough to subdue our ego and intellect so we can see beyond our human perception into God-consciousness.
Purim offers us a chance to imagine and live in this state of being, remembering the hidden secret beyond the confusion of our human existence by inhaling the scent of God-consciousness. As our mind whirls around in the desire to make sense of the senselessness of the Purim story and our own lives, we can become aware of God’s presence in the air and return to our natural state of being: a place in which – perhaps, if we are very still – we can recall the moment when the ruach hakodesh (the holy wind) blew into our nostrils and created our living being.
Like smelling salts, the aroma of Purim can revive us, providing clarity of God-consciousness with a single whiff of sweet, reyach nichoach, pleasing fragrance.
This year as I co-lead our Purim festivities, I will carry a small sachet of bisamim to our Megillah reading, a reminder that in order to truly appreciate this holiday, I must look beyond the surface delights of taste, touch, sight and sound, and connect with the holy scent hidden in this holiday of Purim.
Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Cherina Eisenberg was ordained by ALEPH in January 2016. Find her online at www.cherinaeisenberg.com.