Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 9 September 2023 / 23 Elul 5783

Havdalah Introduction (Part 6): Farewell, My Beloved

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“Hashem, my G-d, will illuminate my darkness”

(King David, Tehillim 18:29)

Havdalah continues with the blessing over spices:

“Blessed are you, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates species of fragrance – Borei Minei Besamim.”

In general, the Halacha for making blessings over different fragrances can be complex. The various possibilities revolve around how each spice grows and its what Halachic designation. However, for Havdalah, the Ashkenazic custom is to recite the blessing “Boreh Minei Besamim” regardless of the kind of spices are being used. Nevertheless, due to the Halachic issues the Mishna Berura (297) rules that one should try to use a spice with the natural blessing of “Boreh Minei Besamim.” According to Sephardic custom, one should make the appropriate blessing for whatever spice is used (Kaf HaChaim 297).

What is the purpose of the spices at Havdalah? Our Sages teach (Ta’anit 27b) that on Shabbat we are granted an extra Neshamah – a Neshamah Yeteira. “Reish Lakish said: An additional Neshamah is placed in a person on Erev Shabbat, and at the conclusion of Shabbat it is taken away. As it states, ‘Shavat Veyinafash – He rested and was refreshed’ (Shemot 13:17). Once he has rested [i.e., once Shabbat has ended], woe, the [additional] Neshama is gone!” Rashi explains that the function of the Neshama Yeteira is to enhance our ability to enjoy the delights of Shabbat.

In the Chassidic texts, the Neshamah Yeteira is described as being a portal for entry into the more esoteric dimensions of the Torah. Our regular Neshamah is the key to understanding the revealed dimensions of the Torah. Shabbat, with its heightened level of holiness, allows us to enhance the spiritual side of ourselves. We are then given the Neshamah Yeteira to help us achieve new levels of connection to Hashem.

But, as Shabbat draws to a close, our extra Neshama returns to the Spiritual Realms and we are left bereft. The Avudraham explains that the spices that we smell at Havdalah comfort us for our loss of the Neshamah Yeteira.

The Bach (Orach Chaim 297) offers an additional reason for smelling the spices. Our Sages teach that as Shabbat commences, the fires of Gehinom are extinguished. Throughout the week, the Neshamahs in Gehinom suffer terribly. However, as the tranquility of Shabbat descends into the world, even the Neshamahs in Gehinom experience peace and serenity. But, as Shabbat departs, the fires of Gehinom are reignited. Sometimes, with the conclusion of Shabbat, our Neshamahs feel a certain weakness as they become aware of the terrible spiritual stench that the suffering in Gehinom produces. The sweet-smelling aroma of the spices give our Neshamas the capability to approach the new week with renewed spiritual anticipation.

What is it about the fragrance of the spices that alleviates the Neshamah’s pain? The Bnei Yissachar offers a thought-provoking insight. When the Torah describes how Adam and Chavah erred by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the narrative describes how four of their five senses were instrumental in their actions. The Torah states (Ber. 3) that Chavah saw the fruit, she took the fruit, they ate the fruit, and they heard Hashem calling to them. The only sense not party to the sin was the sense of smell. Therefore, the sense of smell is the considered the most refined of all five senses since it is untainted from sin. And it is through the sense of smell that the Neshamah receives the most pleasure.

For practical information about which blessing is recited over which spice, please consult with your local Orthodox Rabbi.

To be continued…

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