“רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ –A Sweet Savor unto the L-rd”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald
With this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we begin reading the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, which is also known as Leviticus. In Rabbinic literature, Vayikra is referred to as תּוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים , laws regulating the rituals of the priests.
A good portion of the book of Leviticus focuses on the sacrificial rituals presided over by the priests and the Levites that took place in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The book of Leviticus opens with the general rules regulating the offerings and animal sacrifices. It not only records the kind of animals that are brought, but also the various types of sacrifices. The first sacrifice that is presented is the עֹלָה , Olah, known as the “elevation offering” or “burnt offering.” The opening chapter of Leviticus goes into particular detail regarding the preparation of the burnt offering, its slaughter, the sprinkling of its blood around the altar, flaying of its hide, quartering its flesh and offering the Olah up on the sacrificial altar.
The Torah, in Leviticus 1:9, instructs the priest to wash the innards of the animal and its feet with water. וְהִקְטִיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַכֹּל הַמִּזְבֵּחָה, עֹלָה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , and the priest shall cause it [the sacrifice] to go up in smoke on the altar–-an elevation offering, a fire offering, a satisfying aroma to the L-rd.
Rashi explains that what is meant by a pleasant or satisfying aroma to G-d is that it causes G-d to have a spirit of contentment, because He spoke and His will was carried out.
The Siftei Chachamim explains that Rashi is troubled by the fact that the Torah seems to suggest that G-d enjoys the physical aroma of the sacrifice. Rashi therefore clarifies that it is not the actual scent that G-d enjoys, but rather the spirit of satisfaction that arises from the Jews’ observance of this mitzvah.
The Devek Tov, another supercommentary on Rashi, explains that Rashi was troubled by the fact that the sacrifices actually give off a foul odor, not a pleasant aroma. That is why Rashi was forced to interpret the verse metaphorically. Hence, the aroma is not a smell, but rather a “spirit of contentment.”
The expression אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , a fire offering, a pleasant aroma to G-d, is found in parashat Vayikra on six occasions. These exact or similar words, are repeated more than ten times in other parashiot.
Onkelos translates אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , to mean an offering that is accepted with favor before G-d.
The Da’at Sofrim maintains that the aroma of the offering is the only spiritual element that remains after the sacrifice is burnt. It rises and connects with the spiritual worlds.
The author of Haketav Vehakabbala, explains, movingly, that the person offering the sacrifice must not mistakenly think that his sacrifice alone will gain forgiveness for his sins and trespasses. The donor of the sacrifice should rather have in mind that as a result of his/her future good deeds the sweet savor is yet to come. Sinners, who bring offerings, but do not mend their ways, are condemned by the prophet Isaiah, who asks, Isaiah 1:11, “Who needs your sacrifices?” It is therefore hoped that the “sweet savor,” which comes from afar, will serve as a messenger, bringing favorable tidings of good deeds that the donor will perform henceforth.
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth provides a meaningful exposition of the phrase רֵיחַ נִיחוֹחַ לַה׳ , a satisfying aroma to G-d. The expression first appears in the book of Genesis, when Noah brings animal offerings as a sign of gratitude for surviving the flood. The Torah, in Genesis 8:21, states that G-d smelled the pleasant smell and promised Himself that He would not continue to curse the earth because of the evil inclinations of the human being.
What is the importance and purpose of the sweet aroma? Does G-d need it? Does a sweet smell really have the ability to appease G-d’s anger?
The sense of smell, notes Rabbi Neuwirth, is regarded with particular importance by the sages. The Talmud in Brachot 43b, states in the name of Rav, that people must make a blessing over the sense of smell or favorable aromas, based on the verse, in Psalms 150:6, כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה תְּהַלֵּל יָ־הּ , every soul shall praise G-d. Of the five human senses, only the sense of smell gives direct pleasure to the soul. This is why spices are sniffed after Shabbat on Saturday night, to restore the loss of the additional soul, which we reputedly receive for Shabbat.
Rabbi Neuwirth points out that the Talmud in Sanhedrin 93b, teaches that the ultimate judge, the Messiah, will be inspirited (literally, be made to smell) with reverence for G-d. As it says in Isaiah 11:3, וַהֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת ה׳ .
There is compelling logic to the contention that the sense of smell is the most spiritual of all human senses, penetrating the souls of human beings. The Torah in Genesis 2:7 states, “And the L-rd, G-d, formed the man of the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils a living breath, and man became a living soul.”
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop points out that when they ate of the forbidden fruit, the first humans sinned with four of their five senses. They used their sense of hearing to heed the blandishments of the serpent rather than the words of G-d. Eve used the sense of touch to touch the tree of Knowledge and Good and Evil, and sinned with the sense of sight when she beheld the forbidden fruit-tree and saw that it was a delight to her eyes. Both Adam and Eve failed with the sense of taste when they ate the forbidden fruit.
The Al-mighty had warned the primordial inhabitants that the punishment for defying G-d and for eating the forbidden fruit would be that on the day it is eaten, they would surely die. The rabbis say that once the humans sinned, four of their five senses were disconnected from the human soul, leaving them only as purely physical senses. Only the sense of smell remained connected directly to the human soul, and continued as both a physical and a spiritual sense.
It is the sense of smell, says Rabbi Neuwirth, which reminds us of the human experience in the Garden of Eden, and recalls the lost childhood of humanity, when the body and the soul were melded together in harmony. It is the sense of smell that reminds us to try to recapture the spiritual elements that have been removed from our physical bodies.
That, says Rabbi Neuwirth, is the purpose of the sacrificial rituals. Sin creates a vast distance between the human soul and the Creator. Through the pleasant smell and the sweet fragrance,
the sacrificial offerings (קָרְבָּן ) bring us close (קָרוֹב ) to the Al-mighty, and renew our attachment to G-d.
May you be blessed.