Blessing are You, King of the Universe, who has created a variety of spices.

In the ceremony of Havdalah, it is customary for a box of aromatic spices to be handed round accompanied with an appropriate blessing. Although the original reason for the presence of spices at the close of Shabbat may be as prosaic as the fact that food could now be prepared, the spices became a subject for mystic speculation.

Resh Lakish, the 3rd-century Palestinian amora said as follows '"On the eve of the Sabbath, God gives man an additional (or enlarged) soul, and at the close of the Sabbath He withdraws it from him, for it says; 'He ceased from work and rested', i.e., Vayinafash: once it (the Sabbath) ceased, the additional soul is lost." [1] In this passage there is a play on the word Vayinafash (ceased/rested from work); the prefex "va/vey" attached the word nefesh (which also means soul) creates a new concept: "woe is to the soul at the end of the Sabbath."

The notion of neshamah yeterah was richly expanded in kabbalistic literature, particularly in the Zohar. The use of spices at the Havdalah service is explained as the way to strengthen the soul that becomes faint with the departure of the neshamah yeterah at the end of the Sabbath. [2] A myrtle was preferred by the mystics for it alluded in allusion to the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle." [3] In general, all varieties of fragrant spices and plants were deemed suitable for the benediction of the spices, except for those used as disguise for foul odors,or for idolatrous worship; some authorities prohibited the use of sharp, acrid spices, such as pepper.



[1] Ex. 31:17; Zohar ii: 204a
[2] Pesah. 102b; Bezah 16a; Taanit 27b; Tur OH 297:1
[3] Isaaiah 4:13


Topic of the Month: SPICES
Spicesboxes in the JHOM Judaica Art Gallery
Spiceboxes and salvation




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