Perhaps it was inevitable. “The strangest symptom,” as it has been called by The New York Times, Covid-19’s loss of smell has taken center stage. Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a seven-page front cover about “our most forgotten sense.” The explanation of its strange cover picture is that “conveying smell visually is a challenge, so for the cover we photographed a combination of items that included garlic, onions, cigarette butts, dirty socks, blue cheese, and a can of sardines to create an image that is aesthetically beautiful and olfactorily disgusting.”
As we shall see, this outlook upon the sense of smell is one of the havdalos bein Yisroel l’amim. But first, let’s catch up a bit on Covid and the loss of smell.
For several months beginning last March, even after there was ample evidence that the new deadly virus often came with a loss of the ability to smell, the symptom was totally ignored. The reason later given was that this seemed unimportant, since “it was only smell after all.” Eventually, the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and other professionals woke up. Such experts as neuro-biologists, otorhinolaryngologists, virologists and food scientists, later joined by those with even longer names, realized that something new was happening. The novel symptom was being ignored because “most adults, as tabulated in a 2019 survey, considered “smell the least important sense, the one you would be most willing to lose.”
In fact, in a rather telling statement, “PC Magazine trumpeted, with a mixture of scorn and glee, a majority of kids would rather lose their sense of smell than lose Facebook.”
Even the famed philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in 1798 that “smell is the most dispensable of senses.”
In a telling comment, Charles Darwin considered smell to be “of extremely slight service to humans.”
Plato and Aristotle, two pillars of Western thought, averred that human ability to smell does not compare well with that of the animal world.”
Another tower of intellectual reason, Rene Descartes, dismissed smell as “vulgar.”
However, as usual with philosophy and logic based upon limited human knowledge, even these assumptions have now been proven false. Smell is no longer even thought of, as it used to be, as vestigial, a notion foreign to all of us who believe in creation and a Creator Who brought everything into being for a reason. The new scientific attitude toward the olfactory system is one of awe. “Where vision depends on four kinds of receptors… smell uses about 400, which are together able to detect as many as a trillion smells.” Scientists now admit that “a system assumed to be unsophisticated and insignificant turned out to be quite the opposite.”
Well, ladies and gentleman of science, welcome to Hashem’s amazing world.
It turns out that smell loss, known as anosmia when it’s complete and hyposmia when it’s partial, is quite significant to most people. In fact, as Covid-19 proliferated throughout the world, medical researchers were reporting that average patients were “terrified” to lose this sense. One quite sophisticated expert herself reported “feeling depressed, forgetful… life lacked color, luster…my sense of humor had deserted me.” Even before Covid, a small group of 1,500 formed a group called AbScent to share their experiences with loss of smell. Many of them struggled with depression. One wrote that “I feel alien from myself.” Another felt like he doesn’t even exist. A third reported “profound depths of sorrow and anger and anxiety.” As Covid spread and the group grew exponentially, splitting off into various subsets, the author of this piece, Brooke Jarvis, reports that “scientists after scientist told me that Covid ‘put smell on the map…’ They went from thinking of smell as a bonus sense to a dominant one and from a secondary sense to one of the primary things that influence our life.”
As we know, Hashem works in mysterious ways. With all of the horrific losses we have experienced, even most recently with the passing of several ziknei hador, the inability to experience smell seems minor indeed. Yet, the Torah teaches us that this sense on one level is the most precious of all. The Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Chodesh Adar 1:10) teaches us that when Adam Harishon sinned, all of the senses were involved except that of sense. He concludes that “until this very day, the sense of smell is the one from which the neshomah – the holy soul – benefits, not the body.” He notes that the Gemara (Brachos 44b) cites the posuk (Tehillim 156) of “may all souls praise Hashem” as referring to the brocha upon sweet-smelling spices. He explains that since all the other senses were contaminated (nifgamu) by man’s primordial sin, they require the power of a brocha to eliminate the evil with which they have been tinged. However, we might have thought that smell does not require a brocha at all, since it was never ruined by sin, the Gemara must discover another posuk for the brocha upon besamim.
A number of our gedolei hadoros (Rabbeinu Bachya, Bereishis 2:7; Rav Chaim Vital, Even Hashoham, page 209) add that not only is smell the holiest of the senses, but the nose, too, as the conduit of smell, becomes the most important of the organs. This may be proven by the Gemara (Yoma 84a) which states that if a person had a wall fall on him on Shabbos and we don’t know if he is dead or alive, we check his nose to ascertain if he is breathing. This is the sign that the nose does not convey only smell, but the breath of life itself. It is no coincidence that on Yom Kippur, when it is difficult to amass the required 100 brachos, we seek to smell spices (Rav Moshe Makir, Seder Hayom), since this is the “soul food” of this holiest of days as well.”
Indeed, the Gemara in many places (e.g. Shabbos 63a; Yoma 39a) relates that the various consecrated smells of the Bais Hamikdosh, such as the ketores and the korbanos, would waft through the air, entering the nostrils of people all over Eretz Yisroel. We Jews have never thought of smell as “dispensable” or “vulgar.” To the contrary, we always realized that it is an incredible privilege to breathe the air of Eretz Yisroel, which was once permeated with these sacred smells and still carries the power of avira d’Eretz Yisroel, which stimulates the brain by osmosis.
For us, there are still other reasons to deeply value this far from “vestigial” sense. Chazal (Shabbos 119) teach that the emperor of Rome could not understand why his chefs and cooks couldn’t replicate the foods he had smelled in the Jewish neighborhood. Rav Yehoshua ben Chananiah explained to him that the ingredient known as Shabbos, which is not available to his culinary experts, changes the recipe to a totally different level, from the physical to the spiritual. While every Yiddishe kindele knows this, neither Plato and Aristotle, nor the emperor of Rome, nor more recently the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research (GCCR) had any inkling of the importance of the human nose and the sense of smell. But we know. We know and realize that our sense of smell hearkens back to a moment when the senses were meant to be used solely for that which is holy and pure. Since, for whatever reason, the sense of smell was spared contamination, it has been designated by Klal Yisroel for special attention at the holiest of times, when our neshomah yeseirah is leaving and our everyday soul is feeling diminished, when we cannot make enough brachos and we invoke the soul itself to make a brocha.
But there is a still more sacred use for the sense of smell, far more delicate and “sensitive.” The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 34:9) tells us that when Hashem smells the sweet smell of our korbanos, He recalls the furnace into which Avrohom Avinu was willingly thrown to sanctify His Name. He remembers Chananiah, Mishoel and Azariah who created a special aroma of mesirus nefesh which helps us all in our own times of need. I cannot but imagine the power of the smoke of the kedoshim that arose to heaven amidst the singing of ani maamin and the cries of Shema Yisroel. Despite the villains who caused these korbanos to be offered, Hashem accepts them as our reiach nichoach in the selfless acts of kiddush Hashem.
Perhaps we can take the loss of the sense of smell in our time, “the strangest symptom,” as a reminder to offer our own korbanos to Hashem for a reiach nichoach. We never want lives to be lost, chas veshalom, nor for any suffering to occur. But our sifrei machshavah and mussar teach that when we give something up that is precious to us, that is the greatest korban of all.
Very soon, G-d willing, the pandemic will be over. Many tzaddikim have expressed concern that we will revert to the limitless gratification and materialism of the pre-Covid world. The loss of the only purely spiritual sense for millions should be a wake-up call for all of us to begin feeding our starving neshomah its own food. This includes, of course, all mitzvos and limud haTorah. But it also means placing strong restrictions upon the unnecessary trappings of olam hazeh that we did without this past year. Let’s take the smell test and pass with flying colors. The New York Times cover featured many putrid smells because that is all that they know. But we make a brocha on besamim every week and we understand the sweetness of the neshomah and its needs. Let’s make that brocha with all the power we have and return to the simplicity of our ancestors and the sweet smell of spiritual success.