From biblical to current times, a large number of fragrances have been recorded in Jewish literature. This book is dedicated to a discussion of the halakhic domain of the "blessings on scents" that evolved in the time of the Sages, i.e., blessings recited for the pleasure caused by the scent of fragrances. Extensive current knowledge on the history of the fragrances, their identification, names in Jewish languages, usages, and place in Jewish life and folklore, is presented here for the first time. More precisely, methods and approaches concerning the blessings proposed for the different types of fragrances, from the Talmudic Sages to contemporary adjudicators, are discussed. This study is interdisciplinary and it encompasses several fields of knowledge: botany, zoology, history, material culture, and Rabbinic literature. The topic is explored in light of a variety of literary genres, Jewish literature (halakha, responsa, customs, and prayer books), external sources, and ancient and modern scientific literature.
The main part of the book is devoted to a systematic review of some 70 species of fragrances. Prior to the industrial-chemical development, the large majority of aromatic substances came from the plant world and a minority from the animal world. Halakhic authorities in the East and West engaged in discussions about plants and the aromatic secretions of animals that lived in the wild or were raised for agricultural purposes in the close vicinity of the speakers, as well as about exotic fragrances that arrived in their countries through the trade routes, by sea and by land, from their regions of cultivation in South East Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
The findings indicate communities residing in areas with little sources of fragrances, for example European countries with a cold climate. In contrast, the Jews of Provence and Yemen, for example, enjoyed a wealth of fragrances and scents. Hence, the fragrance culture in these places was more developed and their Jewish authorities have a prominent place in the vibrant halakhic discourse surrounding the blessings recited over aromatic substances.
Throughout history, new fragrances penetrated various regions of the world, and consequently halakhic authorities were required to specify the appropriate blessings. Agarwood (Aquilaria agallocha), sandalwood, Mahaleb (Prunus mahaleb), beaver secretions, and animal-derived amber were first mentioned in the Middle Ages. In contrast, the halakhic status of Tree Wormwood (Artemisia arborescens), Lemon Verbena, Pelargonium, and Etruscan Honeysuckle (Lonicera etrusca) was only discussed in the modern era. Historical records indicate that some traditional fragrances retained their leading status among the more prestigious scents for many generations, while others suffered a drop in status and were replaced by new upstarts.