Fragrances in Two Worlds
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna explains that when Adam ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil he lost a certain degree of the senses of sight and hearing. Accordingly, we do not find any blessings relating to these senses. Eating and smelling remained, but only the sense of taste kept its full measure. Smell is very ephemeral. Smell does have one advantage, however: it can be enjoyed from a distance. Eating corresponds to the earth, being heavy and concrete, while fragrance corresponds to the heavens, light and distant.
We find this attribute of fragrance when the Torah first mentions the verb "smelled". The Creator accepted Noach's offering after he left the ark: "And He smelled the pleasant smell" (Genesis 8:21), meaning that He accepted the sacrifice. Here fragrance symbolizes the relationship of two distant parties.
The next time the Torah uses the verb "smelled" is when Yitzchak recognized the fragrance of Yaakov: "Look, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of the field which G-d blessed." The Midrash explains that Yitzchak smelled the Garden of Eden; smell connected him with a world in another dimension.
The Next World
The physiognomy of the human face alludes to ascending levels or dimensions of existence. The mouth, which represents the sense of taste, the least spiritual of our senses, is in the lowest position. The nose, representing the more spiritual sense of smell, comes above the mouth, and the eyes take the highest position as the sense of sight is considered the most spiritual of the senses.
Rabbi Yoseph Chayim of Bagdad goes into the conceptual or spiritual implications of this as well. He quotes the verse, "You shall therefore safeguard the commandment (mitzvah), the statutes (chukim) and the laws (mishpatim) which I am teaching you today, to do them" (Deut. 7:11), and says:
The 613 commandments are traditionally divided into three categories: 1) chukim (statutes or decrees) such as not mixing or cross-breeding certain species when planting, or not eating pork, etc., 2) mitzvot (commandments or testimonies) such as wearing tefillin or keeping the Sabbath and other commemorative festivals, and 3) mishpatim (laws or judgments) such as not killing, not stealing, etc.
These three levels of commandments can be said to correspond to three types of pleasures. In ascending order, these are taste, smell, and sight. Though all of these exist here in this physical world, the lowest of the three, namely taste [eating/drinking], is most appropriate for the level of reality in which we live.
When a person dies, this lower level of pleasure ceases to exist. His nefesh-soul ascends to the Lower Garden of Eden and receives its sustenance through the sense of smell. This is because a certain type of subtle body exists there in the Lower Garden of Eden. It is just that that body is of such a refined nature [energy form] that it does not require physical food and drink. It is rather said to subsist through the [higher] sense of smell.
Afterwards, the soul ascends further to the Upper Garden of Eden [corresponding to neshamah]. There, the soul is sustained by the radiance of the Divine Presence manifest there. Alluding to this, the Sages said, "In the World Beyond, there is no eating, or drinking. Rather, the righteous sit with their crownson their heads, delighting in the radiance of the Divine Presence". This refers to the pleasure derived from seeing.
Now that we see the significant position that fragrance maintains we surely want to understand how to properly treat it. The Gemara teaches us how to appreciate our gifts.
Rabbi Levi points out a contradiction. [Is the earth G-d's or man's?] It is written, "The earth and everything in it is G-d's," and it is written, "The Heavens are to G-d and the earth He gave to man." There is no contradiction! Here [the first verse is referring to] before a blessing, here [the second verse is referring to] after a blessing.
The contradiction is resolved by qualifying the first verse. True, the earth belongs only to G-d who created it, and we have no claim to the pleasures of the world, but this is only true before a blessing has been said. By saying blessings, we are given the right to enjoy the pleasures of the world.
Pirkei Avos (6:14) spells out: "Everything that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in His world, He created only for His honor." It follows that we have no right to use anything in this world for any other purpose. Therefore the Gemara above asserts that one who derives pleasure from this world without a blessing is like one who steals from the Creator; he has no right to use the world in this manner. Through saying a blessing a person is transferring the pleasure of the material world into an instrument of honoring G-d. This is exactly the intended purpose. For this the world was created. The importance of saying the proper blessing on fragrance is now understood.
Taken from the introduction to Rei'ach HaSadeh by Rabbi Hanoch Slatin. Rei'ach HaSadeh is a comprehensive guide to the laws of blessings on fragrances. More chapters from the book will be published on the Ohr Yosef website and the book can be purchased online from Feldheim