Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 11 February 2006 / 13 Shevat 5766

Garlic Gemach

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: S. in Israel

Dear Rabbi,

First of all, I enjoy your publication very much and would like to see more of Ask the Rabbi and readers' comments.

I volunteer in a used clothing center (gemach) open in the mornings. There is one woman who comes in every week with a very strong smell of garlic. Since we are in a basement and don't have adequate ventilation, it is very disturbing to all present. We sometimes spray aerosol but it is only effective for a short while, and she stays longer. Can we ask her outright to eat her daily garlic for lunch? Will she be insulted? What is the right thing to do?

Dear S.,

I empathize with your problem. Still, even though it might be permitted to say something to the person, I do not think that it would be the correct thing to do.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 11a) relates that once Rebbi was giving a lecture and there was a very strong smell of garlic in the room. He stopped the lecture and asked for whoever had eaten the garlic to leave the room. Rabbi Chiya got up and walked out. When the others saw someone as important as Rabbi Chiya leave, everyone else left out of deference to him. In the morning, Rebbi's son sought out Rabbi Chiya and asked him how he could have been so inconsiderate as to disturb the class like that by eating garlic. Rabbi Chiya replied that he would never have been guilty of garlic breath in a lecture. Rather, knowing that if he left, everyone would follow, he decided to get up in order to spare the “culprit” embarrassment by enabling him to leave with everyone else.

I know that your scenario is not completely analogous, but I think that the underlying message of the Talmud is as applicable. It is difficult to imagine any way of telling the woman that her odor leaves something to be desired without her being terribly embarrassed. This is not only regarding the time that she is being told, but every time she comes into the gemach. And besides, you never know, she may have to ingest garlic to treat some health condition. If so, complaining will just make her feel bad about something she has no control over. Subsequently, in my humble opinion, however hard it is for you and your "co-chesedniks" to put up with the discomfort, the rewards for not saying anything are far greater than the immediate reward of saying something. While saying something now might bring a breath of fresh air into your lives in this world, not saying something will bring you eternal "fresh air" in the World to Come.

  • (Much thanks to Rabbi Reuven Lauffer for his insightful contribution in the preparation of this article.)

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