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Kabbalah teaches the significance of some customs of the Havdalah ceremony.

Scents and Ascents

Scents and Ascents

Intermediate Intermediate
Scents and Ascents
Kabbalah teaches the significance of some customs of the Havdalah ceremony.

[This week's portion of the Zohar contains many insights into the laws and customs of Shabbat, including the Havdalah ceremony at the departure of Shabbat. The following essay discusses of the significance of smelling aromatic spices and especially myrtle at the same ceremony.]

Rabbi Isaac said that when Shabbat departs a person should smell [in Hebrew, "yare'ach"] aromatic spices. This is because the extra Ruach [derived from the same root as "yare'ach"] which a person receives when Shabbat enters has now departed and the Nefesh of the person is now left bereft. We learn about the receiving of the extra soul from the words "He ceased from work and rested [in Hebrew, 'veyinafash', related to the word 'Nefesh']" (Ex. 31:17, see Beitza 16a). Smell sustains the Nefesh….

It is written regarding the Isaac's blessing of Jacob that he smelled the smell [in Hebrew, 're'ach'] of his clothes and blessed him, saying, "See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which G‑d has blessed." (Gen. 27:27)This verse has been explained in the Midrash, but now we shall explain it in a different way. Come and see: smell sustains the Nefesh in man. This is because the soul enjoys the smell - not the body. When Isaac smelled the clothes, he was smelling the same clothes that were worn by Adam and were made for him by G‑d. These clothes came about after Adam sinned and G‑d removed his original, more spiritual, clothes which he was given on entering the Garden of Eden. He then dressed him in more physical clothes.

These lights devolved into a garment made of light….

The first clothes were derived from those pulsing lights called "achorayim", enveloping from the higher worlds of Beriya, Yetzira and Asiya; and these lights devolved into a garment made of light, a vestige of which are the fingernails. The Garden of Eden was like the Temple or a study hall - a place to pray and learn Torah and meditate on G‑d, and therefore these holy lights that are the vehicle for the Shechina, surrounded him and protected him from all danger that might befall him. When he sinned and the holy angels [Ariel, Gabriel, Raphael and Nuriel] removed themselves from him, all that remained of his clothes of light were the fingernails and toenails at the edge of the ten upper and lower extremities of his body.

It is not proper for a person to grow his fingernails long….

Then Adam became fearful from bad events and evil spirits because the holy protectors had removed themselves. All that remained were his fingernails to protect him from the filth and contamination of the other side of holiness that was outside the holiness of his original clothes and now surrounds his fingernails. Because of this, it is not proper for a person to grow his fingernails long. They collect filth under them and this is where the Other Side gains its power and foothold. The longer the nails grow, the more the Other Side [kelipot] grows.

Note that in English you are said to "clip" your fingernails! That is to say you remove the kelipot.

This kelipa is called "castora", a name derived from the place the enemy army camps, and it causes a person to become worried and anxious every day. A person should cut his nails and not throw them out so as not to show that he is belittling the forces of judgment that they represent. This lack of consciousness could cause him harm.

These physical manifestations are all modeled on the spiritual world above, because all achorayim are surrounded by the 'Other Side' which tries to feed off the light of the holiness.

Note that the very words 'Other Side', used by the Zohar to describe forces outside of and separate from the Holy, sum up an important truth. These forces have no reality. They are only the other side of the same coin.

A person should not give these external forces power by making places for them to derive strength in this world.

The aroma calmed his soul and spirit, and the blessing could then flow from that place of calmness….

After Adam sinned, G‑d made him different clothes of aromatic tree leaves from the Garden of Eden. At first he merited spiritual clothes from the achorayim of the higher Garden; now he received more physical clothes and was forced to leave the Garden. Those clothes gave out a fragrance from the aroma of the Garden, and his soul was calmed and uplifted by them. This is what is meant by the verse saying that Isaac smelled the fragrance of Jacob's clothes and then he blessed him. The aroma calmed his soul and spirit, and the blessing could then flow from that place of calmness.

This is why when Shabbat departs a person should smell aromatic spices to calm his Nefesh, which feels bereft of the higher soul that has departed from it. This smell of aromatic leaves is the aroma of the myrtle.

It is interesting to note that the Nefesh is said to be in the blood of a person and the smelling of myrtle actually causes the blood to stop flowing from a wound. Smelling myrtle physically strengthens the Nefesh - exactly parallel to the spiritual strengthening explained above! This parallel is in fact one of the meanings of the very word "kabbala" - like the English word "cable", it has a meaning of drawing one thing to another, or connecting two things together in tandem.

Zohar, pg. 208b; translation and commentary by Simcha-Shmuel Treister

Copyright 2003 by All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work or portions thereof, in any form, unless with permission, in writing, from Kabbala Online.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also know by the acronym "Rashbi," lived in the Holy Land in the 2nd century C.E. A disciple of Rabbi Akiva, Rashbi played a key role in the transmission of Torah, both as an important Talmudic sage and as author of the Zohar, the most fundamental work of Kabbalah. He was buried in Meron, Israel, west of Safed.
Shmuel-Simcha Treister is a lawyer from New Zealand who made aliya to Safed with his family in 1993 to study Zohar. He continues doing so to this day. He also works in the Ascent multi-media center.
The Zohar is a basic work of Kabbalah authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his students (2nd century CE). English translation of annotated selections by Rabbi Moshe Miller (Morristown, N.J.: Fiftieth Gate Publications, 2000) includes a detailed introduction covering the history and basic concepts of Kabbalah. Volume 1 (36 pp.) covers the first half of the first of the original’s three volumes. It is available online from our store, KabbalaOnline Shop.
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