Brachot 43: Sweet Smells

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

When one is consumed with hatred, one is liable to act in ways that are out of the norm, to say the least. “Sina’ah mekalkelet et hashura, hatred breaks down one’s straight thinking” (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:21). Bilaam, consumed with hatred of the Jewish people despite his protestations of following only G-d, rose early and saddled his donkey by himself, a break from royal protocol. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt—who had probably never seen the inside of a stable—did the same and saddled his own horses as he led the charge to bring back the escaping Jews. 

But if hatred makes people act in ways they otherwise would not, so, too, does love; it, too, is mekalkel et hashura. Hence, Avraham got up even earlier than Bilaam[1] and also saddled his own donkey on the way to the akeida, demonstrating his willingness to carry out G-d’s command. 

It is because of the fear of bias that the Mishna (Sanhedrin 3:5) records a view that a friend or an enemy is disqualified from giving testimony. Consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, we fear that their testimony will be tainted. Interestingly, this view is rejected, as “we do not suspect the Jewish people regarding this”; we expect Jews to be completely truthful, even regarding friends and enemies. 

Of course, some biases are just too great. Adam karov etzel atzmo, a human being is close to himself (Sanhedrin 9b), unable to see his own faults. Hence, one may not testify regarding oneself, even to admit guilt. And with a spouse considered as one half of a greater whole, one may not testify regarding one’s wife. This may also explain why one may not testify regarding a relative—first cousins and closer. We may not suspect one of actively lying, but rather of being unable to see the complete picture. 

That we all have biases is obvious. That these biases influence us is equally obvious. That the halacha has built-in biases is also obvious—though rarely stated so starkly. As we recently discussed, the halacha teaches that we are lenient in the case of an agunah, that we can rely on a generally rejected opinion in a time of great need. Other factors that can and often do influence the objective halacha, making halacha as much of an art as a science, are the wealth of the questioner, whether the law is of rabbinic or biblical origin, and the way the halacha might be received by the general public. 

What the halacha tries to do is to distinguish between those biases that are unavoidable, are relatively harmless and can be overcome, and those that can seriously distort the halacha. 

An example of the former is found amidst a discussion on what bracha one makes upon smelling sweet spices.  

Rav Chisda asked Rav Yitzchak what bracha one makes upon enjoying the scents of balsam oil. Depending on the source of the sweet smell, one would make either boreh atzei besamim or boreh minei besamim. Rav Yitzchak responded that Rav Yehuda said the bracha was boreh shemen artzeinu, blessed is the oil of our land, an allusion to the fact that balsam tree grew primarily in the land of Israel. To this, Rav Chisda  responded that he was willing to follow the teaching of any other rabbi, “except for [Rav Yehuda], as the land of Israel is very beloved to him. What do others say?”(Brachot 43a). Rav Chisda refused to rely on a ruling of Rav Yehuda because he loved Israel so much and hence, feared that Rav Yehuda’s love of the land unduly influenced his halachic rulings. Loving Israel is great, but not when it colours one’s approach to a halachic question.  

Presumably, what tipped Rav Chisda off that something was amiss was the unique nature of Rav Yehuda’s suggested bracha. One makes either a boreh atzei besamim or boreh minei besamim on smells. This bracha is clearly an outlier. When one makes a bracha, one extolls what one is about to eat, not the geographical area from whence it came. The brachot of boreh pri haeitz and boreh pri hadamah are not changed based on where they grew. It is the balsam we must be grateful for, not the land it comes from. 

To this, Rav Yehuda might answer that the Torah obligation of birchat hamazon, requiring us to thank G-d after we have eaten and are satiated—something that is applicable wherever one may live—is said in the context of the land of Israel. “When you have eaten and are satiated, give thanks to the Lord, your G-d, for the good land which He has given you” (Devarim 8:10). While the first paragraph of the birchat hamazon thanks G-d for the food we eat, the following two blessings, al haaretz v’al hamazon and boneh brachamav Yerushalayim, have as their central themes the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. 

This emphasis on the Land of Israel is even more pronounced according to the view of Rav Sheshet that the bracha of hazan et hakol is said only if there is a mezuman (Brachot 46a). But if one has eaten alone, or with only one other, one actually begins birchat hamazon with the “second bracha”, opening with the words, “We thank You for the beautiful, good and wide land”. 

What makes this view of Rav Yehuda truly fascinating is that Rabbi Yehuda forbade aliyah to the land of Israel. “Rav Yehuda said: Anyone who ascends from Babylonia to Eretz Yisrael transgresses a positive commandment, as it is stated (Yirmiyahu 27:22): “They shall be taken to Babylonia, and there they shall remain until the day that I recall them, said the Lord” (Brachot 24b). The Talmud even relates how some of his students who planned to move to Israel avoided seeing Rav Yehuda before they left, fearing his reaction. With G-d sending us into exile for our sins, we would have to wait in exile until G-d brought us back. Despite—or perhaps precisely because—Rabbi Yehuda could not even visit the land, he developed a deep love and attachment to Israel. No wonder Rav Yehuda wanted to praise the land of Israel as he inhaled its smells, even if from a distance.

 

[1] Regarding Avraham, it says vayashkem, implying purposely waking up early, whereas regarding Bilaam, it says vaykam, he arose, whenever that may have happened to be. Hence, the rabbinic comment: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: You wicked man! Their ancestor Abraham has already anticipated you in this, as it is said (Breisheet 23:3), “And Abraham rose up early in the morning and saddled his ass”. This is one of many insights I heard from Nehama Leibowitz when I had the merit to be her student.