Cover image for The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature By Deborah A.  Green

The Aroma of Righteousness

Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature

Deborah A. Green


$83.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03767-7

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05066-9

304 pages
6" × 9"
11 b&w illustrations

The Aroma of Righteousness

Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature

Deborah A. Green

The Aroma of Righteousness makes highly original and important contributions to two subject areas that do not normally meet—rabbinic scriptural interpretation, particularly of the Song of Songs, and the religious employment of physical senses, herein scent—especially by locating both in their broader Jewish and general cultural settings. It is a richly rewarding book to read and savor.”


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In The Aroma of Righteousness, Deborah Green explores images of perfume and incense in late Roman and early Byzantine Jewish literature. Using literary methods to illuminate the rabbinic literature, Green demonstrates the ways in which the rabbis’ reading of biblical texts and their intimate experience with aromatics build and deepen their interpretations. The study uncovers the cultural associations that are evoked by perfume and incense in both the Hebrew Bible and midrashic texts and seeks to understand the cultural, theological, and experiential motivations and impulses that lie behind these interpretations. Green accomplishes this by examining the relationship between the textual traditions of the Hebrew Bible and Midrash, the surviving evidence from the material culture of Palestine in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, and cultural evidence as described by the rabbis and other Roman authors.
The Aroma of Righteousness makes highly original and important contributions to two subject areas that do not normally meet—rabbinic scriptural interpretation, particularly of the Song of Songs, and the religious employment of physical senses, herein scent—especially by locating both in their broader Jewish and general cultural settings. It is a richly rewarding book to read and savor.”
“Deborah Green’s new book is an excellent and original contribution to religious studies in general, and to rabbinic thought and religion in late antiquity in particular. It is brimming with creative, interdisciplinary approaches, using concrete artifacts and their cultural transformations with many unexpected results. It will be welcomed by and of great interest to all students of religion in the Roman and Byzantine periods.”
“This is a delicious book—accomplished, original, and encyclopedic—on a topic that has hardly been treated in modern scholarship. Deborah Green’s analyses of the rabbinic texts are lucid and graceful, and they open a window onto rabbinic culture and its sensory side that will surprise even the most seasoned scholars in the field, not to mention anyone interested in the history of scent, perfume, and smell.”
The Aroma of Righteousness is a deeply perceptive study of the role of fragrances and aromatic images in rabbinic literature—a literature notoriously disconnected from other surviving evidence from the late antique period. Deborah Green shows us how the rabbis’ richly layered use of olfactory imagery draws as much from their own experiences of mundane late antique habits as from the Bible itself, yielding ever fresh patterns of biblical interpretation and moral instruction.”
“This book opens up a new avenue for understanding how the rabbis used everyday experiences in constructing their distinctive worldview. It will interest students of Judaism and those studying religion and culture in the first centuries CE.”
The Aroma of Righteousness . . . offers a thorough analysis of the role of aroma and scent in the Bible and in rabbinic thought.”
“Green excels at navigating various authorship and dating issues, explaining that many midrashim depict logical cultural and physiological characteristics of perfume. She handles archaeological sources with ease, expertly incorporating their findings into her textual analysis.”
“Green’s book shows us how the rabbinic authors of the midrashim she discusses, as well as texts of the Bible itself, used aromas in their imagery to think with, and not (merely) because they smell nice.”

Deborah A. Green is Greenberg Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon.


List of Illustrations


Note on Style

1. Tracking the Trail of Scent: An Introduction

2 . The Aroma of Daily Life: Aromatics in Roman and Rabbinic Culture

3. Election and the Erotic: Biblical Portrayals of Perfume and Incense

4 . Spicy Ideologies: Fragrance and Rabbinic Beliefs

5. Soothing Odors: Death, Suffering, and Sacrifice

6. Ephemerality and Fragrance: Desire for Divine Immanence




An Introduction

Rabbi Eliezer’s brothers were once plowing on the plain, while R. Eliezer plowed on the mountain. R. Eliezer’s cow fell and was maimed. It proved fortunate for him that his cow was maimed, because he fled from his brothers and came to the famed R. Yohanan ben Zakkai to study. But now R. Eliezer was poor and had nothing to eat, so he ate clods of dirt until his mouth had a bad odor. The other students went to their teacher and complained about their fellow student’s bad breath. The rabbi turned to his odiferous student and said, “Just as the odor of your mouth caused you to smell bad for the sake of Torah, so will the fragrance of your learning go from one end of the world to the other.”

This brief narrative describes the sacrifice of a young rabbinical student and the prediction by his teacher of that rabbi’s future greatness. To accomplish its goal, the narrative relies on our personal experience—not with how difficult it may be to plow a mountain, or the distress with which a family might receive news of its cow being lame; these are explained within the context of the narrative. Rather, the climax and resolution of the vignette depend upon our firsthand knowledge of bad breath. And this remains unexplained. That is, the narrator relies on our personal experience so that we will empathize with the students, for we all know how repulsive bad breath in others can be. At the same time, because we know how difficult it is to perceive bad breath in oneself, we might also have sympathy for R. Eliezer (as if his being destitute and eating clods of dirt weren’t enough to render us compassionate). More intriguing, however, is R. Yohanan ben Zakkai’s response, which turns bad odor into a positive—even worthy—attribute. R. Eliezer may emit an offensive odor in pursuit of Torah, but once he has acquired knowledge and begins the teaching of Torah he will emit a perfumed fragrance to which people will be drawn. Bad or offensive odor is rendered not only positively but as perfume. The rabbi’s odor wafts abroad, attracts students to him, and draws them in. They, in turn, teach the rabbi’s teachings and spread the perfume from one end of the world to the other. Bad breath becomes fragrance, and fragrance is Torah. What appears to be a simple legend is, on closer perusal, a deeply encoded metaphor and lesson. Sacrifice and suffering for Torah operate in the world as perfume, seducing others to believe.

This book examines rabbinic imagery of fragrance and explores how the ancient rabbis employed aromatic images to propagate their social, theological, and religious claims. It focuses on the many midrashim that mention specific spices, such as frankincense, myrrh, and balsam, and those that reference the more general language of perfume, incense, anointment, and fumigation. At its most poetic, this study uses the lens of aroma to examine rabbinic reflections on such topics as love, righteousness, death, the Divine, and the “other.” At its most mundane, it explores and describes the utterly quotidian. That is to say, it seeks out the impulse for these comparisons and finds them in everyday experience: the fumigation of clothing and rooms, the use of incense in the rituals of various religions, the application of medicinal unguents and ointments, and the bathing and anointing of the body with oil. In the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, these daily activities meant that one inhaled the scents of exotic places in the marketplace, the bathhouse, and the home. These experiences, along with rabbinic reflections upon them, which ranged from the apprehensive, to the soothing, to the sublime, form the backdrop for the astounding layers of metaphor and meaning found in the many “aromatic” midrashim.

When I first began my work on fragrance, I believed that the Hebrew Bible served as the primary impetus for rabbinic images of fragrance. After all, the ancient rabbis interpreted every element of Scripture. I therefore spent much time and energy locating almost every reference to olfaction, aroma, and particular spices in the Hebrew Scriptures. I evaluated the terms, studied clusters of terms, and noted that these groupings quite naturally gravitated to spheres of priestly, royal, or erotic topoi. I explained that these groups sometimes overlapped and that the terms themselves often served as the bridge from one metaphor to another. I then turned my attention to the rabbinic interpretive literature, and there it appeared that the rabbis picked up these biblical terms, along with their associated meanings and valences, and transformed them solely on the basis of “rabbinic” understandings of the biblical literature. I analyzed these midrashim and unpacked their thickly layered metaphors.

As other studies have done, my work demonstrated that these rabbinic interpretations and perceptions were multivocalic and often at odds with one another within and across the tradition and historical periods of redaction. Further, it appeared that early midrashim incorporated “shorthand” descriptions of the same images that were amplified in later interpretive collections. Most important, this work served as an initial demonstration of the serious consideration the ancient rabbinic voices gave to olfaction and fragrance. These voices employed the biblical terms as well as the characteristics and other features that had adhered to those terms and deployed them with finesse and subtlety in the interpretations.

In the midst of that project, however, I began to notice that the rabbis embedded several scent images within a single midrash. In some cases it seemed to me that this level of creativity would have required an intimate acquaintance with the initial image in order to build and layer these metaphors one on top of the other. As I moved from one midrash to the next, I began to intuit that the rabbis had a tradition of how aroma operated and a deep cultural understanding of what particular scents meant. I began to wonder whether some of the rabbis might have had firsthand experience with these particular smells and whether the force of the imagery, whether it concerned erotic arousal or beatific death, came from their own intimate knowledge. While I attempted to address and incorporate some of the cultural questions that arose during the course of the initial project, it became increasingly clear that this avenue of investigation was better suited to another study, which has become this book.

In this book I investigate the relevant history, archaeology, and cultural data that serve to enlarge and deepen our understanding of these remarkable rabbinic interpretations. Although I am not formally trained in history, archaeology, or anthropology, I believe that work in these areas is of critical importance to students of texts if we want to comprehend the full scope and profundity of any given rabbinic interpretation. This work uncovers and organizes the social science data, reviews the biblical texts, and then turns its attention to the midrashic literature in order to demonstrate that the words and associations of the biblical text, the mores of the larger society, and the experience of the rabbis themselves shape the interpretations, their images, and their didactic force.

Some readers will find ample rationale for this study in the synthesis of information and methods from a variety of disciplines. Such an interdisciplinary pursuit has the potential to inform not only the literary analysis, thereby presenting a more complete picture of the texts, but also may change how we understand the history and daily life of the rabbis of the late Roman and early Byzantine periods (roughly the second through the fifth century C.E.). But there are those who will no doubt question the value of such a study, and still others who may applaud interdisciplinary pursuits of one kind or another but see little value in studying the concept of aroma in rabbinic literature. It is true that the rabbis did not use scent as an organizing principle in either of the Talmuds, and they have no overarching opinion, theory, or consensus about fragrance. So why study scent at all, and why pleasant aroma in particular?

First, odor, whether pleasing or foul, enters almost every aspect of our lives—its subtle pervasiveness affects our attitudes and judgments toward both the mundane and the sacred. In the rabbinic worldview, where almost every daily activity became a locus of theological discussion, interpretation, or legislation, aroma was quite naturally part of the discourse. Second, olfaction is one of the primary modes of interaction and communication with God in the Hebrew Bible. Each properly performed sacrifice is described as a “soothing odor before the Lord,” and God’s chosen leaders are identified through anointing with perfumed oil. Both king and savior are referred to as messiah, “anointed one.” Even the Bible’s most secular book, the Song of Songs, is replete with sensual images of wafting perfume and seductive spices. The rabbis of the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, who inherited and transformed many of these biblical images in order to express their own theology and values, lived in a milieu in which spices and perfumes were in common use and carried a variety of cultural meanings. To ignore scent—where it appears in the interpretive texts or in the social world of the rabbis—is to exclude one of the most pervasive and influential themes of rabbinic discourse. I would also argue that the study of the foul is just as important as that of the fragrant, but limits on time, space, and the reader’s endurance require that this subject be addressed elsewhere.

Problems in the Study of Odor

As important as this undertaking is to the field of the history of Judaism specifically and of religion more generally, it is also rife with difficulties. Our understanding of ancient cultures is most commonly derived from an interpretation of their material remains and history. Spices and perfumed oils do not endure over long periods of time, however, and the destruction of incense, through burning, is integral to its employment. Only the containers (bottles, jars, burners) or implements of formulation (oil presses, mortars and pestles, molds) of these substances survive, and these in very small quantities. Add to this the nature of archaeological science, in which only a few select sites can be thoroughly excavated, and the evidence from the material record becomes quite sparse. Further, our construction of social history for the ancient world is derived in large measure from the interpretation of textual sources. Issues surrounding source selection and interpretation are only the beginning of the difficulties the social scientist faces. For the literary researcher who wishes to study olfaction and fragrance, even language becomes a problem.

Intuitively, one may understand scent images as categorically different from auditory or visual descriptions. Scents are most often described by simile, metaphor, or metonym. While this may be true for visual and auditory images as well, further description of those images is also possible. The visual simile “her cheeks are like pink roses” can be described further by elucidating the details of “her cheeks” or of “pink roses.” The additional descriptions may include the aspects of softness, size, or precise hue. Such supplemental descriptions are not only difficult with scent; they are almost impossible to grasp if one has not previously experienced the scent. A bar of soap may smell like a rose, but it is difficult to describe precisely what “rose” smells like to anyone who has not already experienced this fragrance, and further descriptions of the object will seek to include visual, tactile, or other perceptual clues of the “bar” or “soap” rather than of the “rose.”

Without an aesthetic lexicon for aromas, a textual analysis may be reduced to simple repetition of the text. In addition, concentration on the memory of a visual image enables the subject to see the image in his or her mind. Scent does not lend itself to this kind of memory. Most of us cannot smell the fragrance of an orange by mentally concentrating on the idea of an orange. In literature spanning several centuries, continents, and cultures, however, the emotional and recollective reaction to specific scents, such as Marcel Proust’s reaction to the madeleine in The Remembrance of Things Past, is so striking as to inspire consideration of scent’s pervasive hold on our emotions and memory. Further study on these initial problems reveals their origin in the physiological mechanics of olfaction. The nature of human olfaction, in turn, triggers several important cultural developments—a short review of which is necessary if we are to be able to suspend the judgment of our own culture and historical moment in order to understand those of the late Roman and Byzantine periods.

The Physiology of Smell

In her popular book A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman gives one of the most lucid descriptions of olfaction:

Odor molecules float back into the nasal cavity behind the bridge of the nose, where they are absorbed by the mucosa containing receptor cells bearing microscopic hairs called cilia. Five million of these cells fire impulses to the brain’s olfactory bulb or smell center. Such cells are unique to the nose. . . . If you damage neurons in your eyes or ears, both organs will be irreparably damaged. But the neurons in the nose are replaced about every thirty days and, unlike any other neurons in the body, they stick right out and wave in the air current like anemones on a coral reef.

As one can detect from Ackerman’s description, the physical act of olfaction is unique in comparison with the other senses. The neurons in the nose are constantly replenished, making the sense of smell less susceptible to physical damage or the frailties of old age. In addition, since the molecules actually enter the body cavity and are deciphered directly by the brain, olfaction can be considered an unmediated activity.

Most scholars agree, though, that our senses are “mediated experience”; that is, when we experience an event through our senses, our brain interprets that experience. This interpretation may involve our personal history (our experience of that sensation before), our generation, our culture, our religion, or any number of factors. With olfaction, this second order of experience (the interpretation of what we have smelled) occurs so quickly that we experience the two steps as one reaction, and our reflection on the interpretation seems to disappear.

In part, this phenomenon may be due to the physical location in which our experience of scent resides. Once the brain encounters an odor, it sends a message directly to the limbic system, that “mysterious, ancient, and intensely emotional section of our brain in which we feel, lust, and invent.” This repository of our olfactory experiences is also the warehouse in which we store emotions and many of our deepest memories. As a result, each time we smell something familiar, emotions and memories associated with that odor return practically instantaneously. In fact, because scent is stored in the limbic system, it may have the strongest link to memory of any of the senses. Memories of our other sense experiences can almost be considered short term, because they are easily replaced or forgotten. A scent, by contrast, because it is stored in the limbic system, is better retained in the memory.

Because the olfactory bulb is located so “far down” (medial and inferior) in the brain, while sight and hearing take place in the outer (cortical) layer of the brain, many researchers theorize that olfaction is the “oldest” of our senses. As Ackerman observes, it is the olfactory bulb sticking right out of our ancestors’ heads when still swimming in the sea that became the mammal’s brain. These two factors, that the sense of smell is the oldest of our senses and that the experience of sight and hearing occurs in a different place in the brain, may account for the perception that olfaction is more “animal-like” than vision or hearing—or at least that it was more useful to humans in their earlier developmental period. Taste can be included with smell in this respect, as it requires that the subject be close to the object (as smell often does) and does not exist in all its nuances and varieties without smell. On its own, taste includes only the basic sensations of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour; it requires interaction with smell to derive all other flavors. It is easy to see how these two senses may have worked in tandem in early human development, given the importance of avoiding poison. Smell and taste are the two primary indicators of what should and should not be ingested.

The wellspring of emotions found in the limbic system may account for the disconnection between scent and language. Many researchers agree that we seem to have emotional reactions to scent far more quickly than we can articulate them. But it also appears that our inability to describe odor goes beyond this emotional reaction, for even long after we experience them, we most often describe scents by metaphor, simile, or simply naming the scent. William Miller, in his work on disgust, elaborates:

The lexicon of smell is very limited and usually must work by making an adjective of the thing that smells. Excrement smells like excrement, roses like a rose, rotting flesh like rotting flesh. Sometimes we attempt description by saying that rotting flesh smells like feces, or that a perfume smells like a rose. What is missing is a specially dedicated qualitative diction of odor that matches the richness of distinction we make with the tactile as with squishy, oozy, gooey. . . . Odor qualifiers, if not the names of the things emitting the odor, are usually simple adjectives and nouns expressing either the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the smell, most of which merely mean bad or good smell. . . . Olfactory and gustatory reduce us to saying little more than yum or yuck.

In response to Miller, one might ask whether this lexical insufficiency pertains only in English (or Hebrew or Aramaic, as I discovered). Dan Sperber clarifies that “even though the human sense of smell can distinguish hundreds of thousands of smells and in this regard is comparable to sight or hearing, in none of the world’s languages does there seem to be a classification of smells comparable, for example, to colour classification.” Sperber argues that unlike vision or hearing, there is no “semantic field of smells.” We know and recognize thousands of scents but have virtually no ability to describe them or place them in semantic categories. Further, Ackerman points out that with 23,040 breaths a day, we use our sense of smell almost as much as our sense of touch. We smell while we sleep, eat, exercise—while we do everything and anything. We can’t turn smell off, and we can’t seem to describe it either.

The physiological phenomena regarding olfaction do not end where the “trail of scent” stops. Work in recent years on pheromones has shown that we are smelling even when we are not consciously aware of it. Pheromones may explain many mysteries once thought to be purely social, such as common menstrual cycles in collectives of women who either live or work together, mate selection, group leadership dynamics, and common fear responses, to name a few. Considering the physiological phenomena, researchers’ interest in olfaction, scents themselves, and the operation of pheromones is not surprising. Recent years have seen an avalanche of information on scent, how it operates in the human body, and which scents (or pheromones) elicit and affect which behaviors. In the humanities, though, far fewer studies have been undertaken. This is surprising, especially in the study of ancient religion and culture, where odors must have dominated rites of sacrifice. This oversight may have more to do with our own cultural attitudes toward scent than with its physiological aspects.

Philosophy and Psychology and the Sense of Smell

The study of olfaction in the humanities has been hindered largely by the inculcation of Western philosophy and early psychology into the various fields of the humanities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of religion, where research should include investigation of all aspects of human existence and expression: intellectual, emotional, and physical or sensorial. In fact, most definitions of religion mention “ritual” as an attribute. And what is ritual if not the physical and sensorial expression of religious belief? If it is nothing else, “practice” is sensual.

In the past several years this lacuna has been greatly rectified by scholars studying the “embodiment of religion,” mostly in religions other than Christianity and Judaism. Until very recently studies of the senses, and specifically of olfaction, were often considered frivolous, even laughable, by many scholars of these two Western religious traditions. These negative attitudes can be traced back to a history of devaluation of the senses in Western philosophy and psychology. With respect to philosophy, Hans Rindisbacher points out that

the epistemology of the senses has its origins in Plato and Aristotle. It is with Plato in particular and his forms that the emphasis in the dyad of perception and cognition is placed in favor of the latter and thus shifted from the concrete to the abstract; and it is in the opening lines of Aristotle’s Metaphysics that the sense of sight is extolled in both its usefulness and its pleasure-giving function. It is Aristotle also who, by acknowledging the senses’ potential for both knowledge and pleasure, places them at the beginning of a road that will soon bifurcate into the cognitive-scientific and the hedonistic-aesthetic realms. With the emergence of Christianity and its ambivalent attitude, to say the least, toward the world of the senses, this division is reinforced and undergoes a shift in emphasis: Augustine . . . redraws the line between the disembodied, spiritual, and transcendental realm on the one hand and the corporeal, sensual, and immanent on the other.

This bifurcation becomes so entrenched in the predominant denominations of Christianity that it naturally enters the humanities and the study of religion by way of those who perform the research. This division, which becomes a binary oppositional organization that values the incorporeal over the corporeal, the spiritual over the sensual, and aligns rational thought with the transcendent and emotion with the immanent, seems to act subliminally upon investigators. As a result, scholars who are otherwise reasonable, open, and objective fail to see how their own values and assumptions prevent them from evaluating religious practice and belief by any other structure or in any other way. Thus, it is not surprising that the issues of “embodiment” and “the senses” are infants in the study of Western religions—particularly the history of Judaism, which seems to lag somewhat behind the history of Christianity in this respect.

When the senses are studied at all, sight is the most commonly emphasized. Occasionally, one may encounter a study on “hearing,” in part because the Hebrew Bible itself tries to propagate, at least in certain sections, the idea that God is heard and not seen (Deut 4) and in part because scholars of the Bible have come to understand textual traditions as having their basis in oral traditions. Until recently, however, studies on the other senses (touch, taste, and smell) have been rare. Rindisbacher would likely attribute this omission to the further demotion of these senses brought about by Kant and Hegel. These two philosophers include only vision and hearing in their constructions of an aesthetic realm. Hegel asserts that the “sensual in art is limited to the two theoretical senses of vision and the ear whereas olfaction, taste, and touch are barred from aesthetic enjoyment.” These three senses are linked too closely with “the material and the unmediated sensual qualities of matter.”

Excluded from the developing category of aesthetics in philosophy, it is not surprising, when one considers the interconnectedness among the various areas of the humanities, that the three “lower” senses would receive less attention than vision and hearing in the field of religion. Olfaction becomes linked with matter, rather than intellectual complexity, and is therefore less interesting to religious scholars. Philosophy alone, however, is not responsible for the neglect of the study of scent. The discipline of psychology and the Western cultural construct of “good taste” that evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have also played significant roles.

The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of writing and research on scent, as a rising bourgeois class became obsessed with elements of “good taste” and sanitary conditions. An increasing perception of smell (good and bad) in the family circle was extended to the public arena. Western society was transformed as odors—particularly bad, offensive, and “unhealthy” odors—were scrutinized, researched, and catalogued. Attempts were made to control odors in every realm of society. But what seemed so important in everyday life, and what the “scientific” community responsible for public health focused on, was considered an unacceptable topic of conversation, intellectual pursuit, and possibly even literature. This trend continues today, as evidenced by the overwhelming number of deodorants and cleansers stocked in our grocery stores to rid our bodies and homes of any conceivable “bad” smell. The abundance of perfume counters and the glut of new perfumes on the market also testify to our desire to cover up unwanted body odor. Ultimately, our obsession with “bad” odors has led to the desire to create an environment that has no scent at all. While I hope to the contrary, it would seem to follow that a society that values “odorlessness” would produce scholars in the humanities who find it unnecessary, possibly unintellectual, and even undesirable to study scent.

Whether or not our culture’s values hold sway over academic study, the study of scent in the humanities was dealt another blow when Freud and other sexual researchers first defined the psychology of scent and the human sense of smell. Freud supposed that as man became more civilized, he sought to repress his erotic desires, which were constantly triggered by the scents of women. Freud pointed to man’s evolution into a being who walked upright (without “his nose to the ground”) as the development that freed him from the scent of female genitalia. The implications of Freud’s assertions are staggering. Scent, having already been connected to the “sensual,” devalued as an aesthetic category, and relegated to the corporeal, now became entwined with the erotic and animalistic. By virtue of this association, aroma was relegated to the dark recesses of the human mind and body and consigned to the uncivilized, bestial world—the world that was repressed in the civilizing process and that required vigilant suppression. By standards of “good taste” and polite society, discussion of the erotic, much less erotic behavior, became taboo among the cultural and intellectual elite.

The study of scent came to be an area of research on the subhuman, or on the human in its most rudimentary forms. Repression of the erotic thus took place at both the individual and the social level. Scent took on an added stigma given its liminal nature and our inability to control leaking odors, particularly bodily odors. Freud’s view of smell caused studies of scent in connection to psychology to focus on pathology: sexual dysfunction, disease, and mental illness. An understanding of human development that transformed the nose into an anachronistic sexual organ that had to be repressed was easily translated into a theory that humans do not need their sense of smell, or need it less than they did in earlier stages of development. As a result, people with a keen sense of smell could be considered less human and more akin to the animals who are unable to repress their sexual desires.

It is noteworthy that some academics have feminized the study of olfaction. It makes sense to them that a woman would study scent because, as a few of them have remarked, “women have a keener sense of smell.” My research has yet to uncover any evidence for this assertion. I can only surmise that this view is the result of those links forged early on by philosophy and psychology that connected aroma, the erotic, and the feminine. Other scholars sidestep the issues surrounding the eroticism of smell and maintain that our olfaction does not work as well as it did in ancient times. Proponents of this theory seem to have absorbed a “lay” understanding of Darwinism, coupled with an obvious misconception of history. Nevertheless, the number of academics who claim that humans are not able to smell as well as they used to is astounding—especially since there is no scientific evidence for this view. Smell is an adaptive sense, which means that our ability to detect odor may be infinite!

But the philosophers and psychologists were not all wrong. Some of their rational and intuitive assessments of olfaction have been verified by scientific discoveries on the neurological aspects of smell. The philosophers were correct in describing olfaction as categorically different from vision and hearing. These two senses first appear at a later stage in human development, they take place at a distance from the object of discernment, and their language pathways seem to be more developed. On this last point, the philosophers correctly ascertained that we have few methods for organizing ideas about scent; we lack a “lexicon” for categorizing scents. And just as smell is the oldest of the senses, it is also a direct experience in terms of the molecules entering deeply into the body. That the memory of a scent is stored in the limbic system, “the seat of emotion,” means that both the philosophers and Freud were fair in their assessment of scent as difficult to intellectualize, or as in some way related to the “unmediated sensual qualities of matter.” Our responses to scent are tied directly to emotions that are not easily articulated, and memories associated with scent are also very strong and often associated with early childhood experiences, whether positive or negative. Freud was not wrong in positing a connection between scent and the repression of feelings and desires, a normal part of the human maturation process. He was also correct in defining a connection between scent and the erotic; this has been verified by the scientific discovery of pheromones. As a result of scent’s special liminality in the psyche and body, its unwieldy ephemerality, and the development of our own cultural prejudices, the lack of research until recently is not so surprising. But now that physical, biological, and social scientific research on scent and olfaction is “blossoming,” the time has come to look at this important sense perception in terms of its cultural, historical, and religious significance.

Studies of Scent

Many influences have contributed to recent studies on olfaction and aroma. The postmodern period has witnessed a new trend toward individualism and a blurring of the lines between pop and high culture. The line between the biological and social sciences has also eroded, as a resurgence of scientific study on scent and pheromones continues to uncover the physiological, emotional, and psychological importance of scent in our lives. In addition, more positive lay attitudes in the West toward scent are evolving through experiences with holistic health practices, homeopathy, and Eastern medicine. These developments have opened new avenues of research in each of the humanities and have promoted interdisciplinary studies. A significant rise in the number of women in the academy, along with major achievements in feminist studies and theory, has also had widespread positive effects on research in virtually every area, smell and scent included. Some of the longest-standing and most misogynistic claims about women are simply read and dismissed without hesitation, thereby inviting us to investigate the same material with new methods and from different viewpoints.

Several excellent studies have been published on aroma. Each has a unique focus and methodology, and almost all have supplied valuable insight and data for this project. Works on social history by Alain Corbin and William Ian Miller have encouraged me to reflect on the daily lives of the ancient rabbis. In addition, Miller has explored the changes we may experience psychologically when some action, object, or type of behavior moves from the public to the private sphere. What prompts disgust at the public level provokes a different reaction at the level of intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy. By analogy, this line of thinking is helpful in considering many different unpleasant and agreeable odors. I have also found helpful Hans Rindisbacher’s literary analysis of the operation of smell in nineteenth- and twentieth-century German literature. Remarkably, the triangulation of scent, eros, and thanatos that he perceives in German literature appears in some rabbinic midrashim. In addition, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott, demonstrates the deep connections of history, culture, and religion with fragrance. The authors also address the question of how culture-specific our evaluation of scent can be; one culture may identify a scent as abhorrent while another finds it pleasurable. Such reversals and inversions appear in rabbinic literature as well. Finally, an important article by David Howes, “Olfaction and Transition,” helped me to clarify my thinking about olfaction, ritual and life transitions, and perfume and liminality.

A handful of sense-specific studies on the Bible, Judaism, and Christianity have also been immensely informative. The most important of these is Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. I assumed that as I moved toward the later rabbinic literature, I would find that the later rabbis had less direct experience with incense and perfume than their earlier Roman-period counterparts. The Roman Empire, with its vast employment of spices for adorning the body, fumigation, and sacrifices to the gods, changed fundamentally under Christian leadership. But Harvey maintains that although the early church fathers may have had ambivalent attitudes toward perfuming the body, incense and perfume were used liberally in the Christian communities of the East, particularly from the fourth century onward. This discovery demanded that I reconsider the late Palestinian material, which until then I thought had been a period of aromatic unadornment. It also encouraged me to reevaluate the Babylonian material, as I realized that Babylonia would have had continual access to these spices long before, during, and after the Sassanid dynasty and the corresponding height of the Roman and Byzantine periods in Palestine. Harvey’s work also led me to the important research of Béatrice Caseau, and the strong tie between perfume and medicine in the ancient world—also evident in the rabbinic literature.

I hope that this volume will add to an ever-expanding discussion of the senses, and the role of olfaction more specifically, in the history of religion. Although the rabbis’ use of aromatics is primarily nonritualistic, rabbinic interpretations reveal deeply encoded cultural constructions of what perfume, incense, and spice represent. In some cases, as in the midrash on R. Eliezer with which this introductory chapter begins, understanding the midrash depends entirely on these structures. This study thus seeks to unpack the layers of these midrashim by demonstrating how scent operates in them. To that end I have relied on a methodology that combines literary contextual analysis with an examination of the role of aromatics in the society in which these texts were produced.

Method and Organization

The sheer number of passages concerning scent and the difficulty in deciphering the meanings behind these literary and cultural representations require a system of categorization and evaluation. Drawing on the groundbreaking work of the classicist Marcel Detienne, my analysis of rabbinic texts reveals a profoundly complex social encoding of scent images and layering of the ideas, or valences, that adhere to those images. Perfume, for example, which is often associated with romance, sexuality, and tranquility, can be viewed quite positively when referring to God (with attendant images of mercy and memory) but may have strong negative associations (witchcraft and idolatry) when applied to women.

Rabbinic images of fragrance (most often articulated by means of perfume, incense, and spice) and their attendant characteristics (good, bad, dangerous, erotic) are not purely literary productions, however. The perfumed substances and their environments (people, bathhouses, altars) are part of the realia of daily life. As such, they possess and attract distinct characteristics and valences of their own, and these too find their way into the literature. As a result, a thorough understanding of everyday practices involving fragrance is critical to unraveling the full meaning of the texts.

To identify these practices, one must turn to the archaeological record and the textual sources. Fortunately, a solid pathway has been trudged by several experts in late antique Jewish written and material evidence, and this allows us to form a synthesized understanding of the culture. By reading literature alongside historical, archaeological, and social evidence, these scholars have transformed our understanding of the cultural landscape of rabbinic Judaism.

Several literary and historical studies have noted that rabbinic literature, both halakhic (legal) and aggadic (nonlegal), often reveals the worldview of the rabbis themselves, or at least their desire that the world be seen in a particular way. And these rabbinic attitudes and viewpoints often stand in sharp contrast to how the world actually operated. For example, historians have raised the issue of self-referential rabbinic ascendancy for times during which the political situation must have been otherwise. Other investigations have demonstrated rabbinic accommodation to widespread practice, the preponderance of legislation that was probably ignored by the Jewish community, and the unreliability of the rabbinic interpretation of history.

In order to paint an objective picture of the community in which the rabbis lived, then, we need to examine the broad external evidence and compare it to the archaeological, historical, and social record of the immediate culture. First and foremost, however, we must choose which rabbis to study and find out where and when they lived. The large group of midrashim taken up later in this volume is found primarily in the books of Genesis Rabbah and Song of Songs Rabbah. Genesis Rabbah is a collection of interpretations that follow the biblical book of Genesis line by line. It was redacted in Palestine during the fifth century C.E. but incorporates much earlier material. Song of Songs Rabbah, by contrast, which interprets its biblical namesake, was probably not redacted before the middle of the sixth century C.E. Although Songs Rabbah is considered a somewhat late compilation, its sources also include much older material (from the Mishnah, several baraitot, the Palestinian Talmud, and, most important, Genesis Rabbah). The interpretations cross numerous generations of rabbis, primarily from the third through the fifth century C.E., and present a wide range of interests and opinions. In light of the strong presence of Palestinian tradents in this literature, combined with the redaction of the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud Yerushalmi in Palestine, those cities, towns, and villages that had significant Jewish populations and most likely a rabbinic presence during these centuries seem to be the best places to study. This study thus focuses on the cities of Caesarea, Tiberias, and Sepphoris, as well as smaller Jewish towns such as Meiron, Gush-Halav, and Beit She‘arim from approximately the second through the fifth century C.E.

As has often been noted, the term “rabbis” is problematic because it implies a group in universal agreement on many, if not all, issues. As almost every aspect of rabbinic literature so far studied has revealed, however, particular rabbis and groups of rabbis had particular views, often in sharp disagreement with one another. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that the rabbis disagreed about issues surrounding fragrance or that their views changed in this respect over the course of the several centuries represented in the literature, as well as across geographic regions. When and in what manner aromatic spices should be used, or whether the employment of incense and perfume by gentiles could have a negative influence on Jews are two questions about which there was undoubtedly disagreement. In her work on scent in early Christianity, Harvey discusses the variety of opinions about, and reactions to, perfume among the early church fathers. Although attitudes as strident as those of some of the church fathers appear only occasionally in rabbinic literature, negative opinions are expressed and occasionally forcefully argued. More common, however, is the absence of opinion on fragrances and their employment, and in these cases the literary material should be read neither prescriptively nor proscriptively.

Nevertheless, the general outlook that may be derived from the literary and material evidence indicates widespread familiarity with, acceptance of, and employment of pleasurable aromas on the part of the rabbis and their communities. To that end, chapter 2 reviews the cultural, archaeological, and literary evidence of perfume and incense use in the eras before and during the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods (the rabbinic periods most closely aligned with the late Roman and early Byzantine periods) in Palestine. This evidence is organized around the contexts of daily life in which fumigants could be found: the marketplace, the bath, the home, and burial. In this chapter I seek to draw as complete a picture as possible of the everyday uses of spices. Not only do rabbinic customs, rituals, and attitudes surrounding aromatics conform in large measure to those of the wider society, but these everyday uses, experiences, and attitudes often underlie and serve as the impetus for the metaphors and images incorporating scent that are deployed in rabbinic interpretive texts.

Examination of the material and cultural underpinnings of daily life and the sensory experience of scent in this period lays the groundwork for the subsequent chapters. The literary analysis in succeeding chapters is informed by discussion of everyday practices such as bathing, eating, fumigating garments, and burial, as well as by broader issues, such as the spice trade, economic realities, and the dynamics of urban life. In addition, chapter 3 departs slightly from rabbinic issues to review the scent images found in the Hebrew Bible and to explore how inner-biblical reinterpretation combines erotic metaphors about perfume with those of sacred incense, primarily in the books of the Prophets. Although this chapter appears to take several steps backward, historically speaking, its method of literary analysis conforms closely to that employed in the subsequent chapters on midrash, and it focuses on the key passages and images that form the basis for rabbinic interpretations involving fragrance, primarily from Song of Songs. For this reason I have placed chapter 3 just before my analyses of rabbinic interpretation.

Chapter 4 presents the variety of scent interpretations that the sages of the rabbinic period employed in their elucidations of key values about people, places, and history. For example, the rabbis interpret Song of Songs, in which the young woman describes her beloved as flowing myrrh, while he describes her as a garden of spicy delights, allegorically as referring to the relationship between Israel and God. Drawing on this meta-metaphor, rabbinic interpretation assigns the role of the beloved variously to biblical characters (Abraham and Jacob), the righteous of the world, and even the rabbis themselves. These interpretations are heavily laden with fragrance imagery and reveal deep-seated feelings among the rabbis. The section in chapter 4 on perfume and “the other,” for example, illuminates rabbinic attitudes toward women (both as virtuous and as licentious) by means of perfume. Likewise, the rabbis subtly compare the aroma of perfume and the substance of perfumed oil so as to raise questions of who is righteous and how rabbis should behave.

Because rabbinic literature transforms so many biblical images of perfume, spices, and love into images of erotic death or sacrifice and eventual redemption, chapter 5 assesses rabbinic material concerned specifically with sacrifice, death, and martyrdom. Here the “bundle of myrrh” worn by the beloved in Song of Songs is transformed into the suffering servant, whose death by fire serves as both atoning sacrifice and redemption for Israel.

Chapter 6 discusses the implications of what has gone before, looking primarily at how we might reconsider rabbinic theology in light of both the material-cultural evidence and rabbinic literary constructions of the erotic, death, and suffering. During the fourth century C.E., we see not only a rise in the use of aromatic imagery but also a new thread of this imagery that views Israel’s persecution as inherent in her intimate relationship with God.