Back in the before-time, it was customary to greet the Sabbath by dancing before her while waving branches of a myrtle tree. The fragrance of the myrtle plant came to be considered one of the special aromas of the Sabbath. Every Friday night, the mystical luminary Isaac Luria would take two bunches of myrtle branches, bless them and inhale their fragrance deep. Anything inhaled on the breath (neshima) is integrated with the soul (neshama) as the Hebrew language confirms that breath and soul are one.
A.J. Heschel wrote of the Sabbath with incomparable beauty. He tells us that the prohibition against lighting a fire on the Seventh Day indicates you shall not ignite the flames of anger. The Sabbath day quelled even my father’s intractable rages. Every Friday night I sang with intention ushering in malachei hashalom, the angelic guardians of domestic peace.
There is a tragic moment when the Sabbath inevitably departs. (I know it well.) This is the moment when body, soul and spirit are separated and bereft. The Kabbalist text known as the Zohar suggests an antidote to this split: It tells us to reach for aromatic herbs “as their fragrance will reunite soul and spirit and make us glad.” The myrtle, the clove, frankincense are all recommended for that purpose.
Every Saturday eve of my childhood when my father returned from the synagogue, we would raise the braided havdalah candle high and pass around the silver spice box. Each of us in turn would close our eyes and inhale cinnamon and clove into our core. In this way we integrated the sweet neshima/neshama of the Sabbath so that we might retain it as an olfactory memory throughout the week. I hoped that my friend Josh’s father was really breathing in deep and that my own suffering father would somehow find a scent-mark back to serenity.
All this reminds me of a midrashic story I once heard. In those days, the threat of Israel’s destruction at the hands of the Romans loomed with an air of the inevitable. In extremis, the great sage Ishmael ben Elisha finds his way into the innermost sanctum of the Holy Temple there to behold God sitting on the heavenly throne. Ishmael comes forth with a humble offering – a portion of incense prepared according to the ritual prescription. Re-ach nechoach or a sweet aroma has been known to elicit a response in the Divine mind-set, resulting in a conciliatory shift that word and deeds and entreaties fail to bring about. The fragrant aroma issuing from the incense accompanies Ishmael’s very particular request. He prays that God’s mercy might surpass his anger, that God’s compassion will temper his strict judgment. He prays that sweet fragrance will persuade God to alter the course of history.
I am increasingly fascinated by the power and subtlety of smell as an aid in the transformation of spirit. When we breathe deep to integrate serenity of Sabbath, are we following a Divine model? Or are we imagining our God as a seeker of fragrance because of its transformative powers here below?