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Thought for the Day: The Bracha of בורא עצי בשמים

It is part of nusach S'fard to read the ingredients of the קטורת/incense every morning.  Nusach Ashkenaz only reads it on Shabbos and Yom Tov.  I understood the Mishna Brura to say that even us Ashkenazim are allowed to read the קטורת every day, and it is even laudable; so I do.  Some of the spices (ok, smart guy, one of the spices) is something I recognize: cinnamon.  But  stacte, onycha, galbanum, frankincense,  myrrh, cassia, and spikenard... well, I really have no clue.  (Truthfully, spikenard and frankincense sound creepy to me.)  If you are ever thinking about what to get the chareidi man who has no sense of style, try this: Frankincense, Myrrh , Spikenard, Hyssop, Cedarwood, and Cinnamon essential oils  (it comes as a set).  If you want, you can add Jasmine as extra credit.

Enjoying pleasant aromas, like any other pleasure from this world, require a bracha before partaking.  Interestingly, many of us only run across this issue on Saturday night when making havdala.  One of "stars of the show" is the bracha of בורא מיני בשמים and the passing of the spice jar.  Truthfully, though, there are different brachos for different categories of aromas, just as there are different brachos for different categories of foods.  בורא מיני בשמים is sort of the שהכל of aromas.

For example, there is בורא עשבי בשמים for aromatic herbs and grasses.  That is actually the appropriate bracha to make when smelling most flowers.  There is בורא עצי בשמים for aromatic עצים.  That is the proper bracha for roses, which are actually "trees", as the do not die each year; they just lose their foliage and flowers at the end of the season and then produces new growth the next year.  I suppose you are wondering why I didn't translate עצים.  Great question!

This all came up because I am learning masechta brachos and on page 43a/b the gemara discusses the appropriate bracha on כשרתא and סמלק.  Rashi translates כשרתא as קושט (one of the spices in the קטורת -- Oh!  That's what that story at the beginning has to do with all this.  Kinda stretching there, aren't you, Allen?) and which Art Scroll translates as costus.  Rashi translates סמלק into Arabic as יסמי''ן and which we recognize immediately as jasmine.  As you probably already know (you can check out the Wikipedia links if you don't), both costus and jasmine are perennials; that is, the plant produces flowers, sends out its seeds, then dies.  They are in no way, shape, or form trees.  Yet the gemara clearly states that the appropriate bracha on each is בורא עצי בשמים!  We have one of two choices: we don't have the correct translation for either כשרתא/קושט nor סמלק/יסמי''ן -OR- we don't have the correct translation for עצים in the bracha of בורא עצי בשמים.

Art Scroll cites a couple of rishonim and a Biur Halacha (216).  I went to look at the Biur Halacha... it's one of those scary long ones.  I fortified myself with another cup of coffee and went at it.  The Biur Halacha quotes same rishonim, plus more, plus a couple of gaonim and then tops it off with some acharonim for good measure.  At the end of the day (which it pretty much was by that time), there is a machlokes about how to translate the word עצים in the bracha of בורא עצי בשמים.  Some translate it the same way we translate עצים  in the bracha of בורא פרי העץ; in which case they say that we don't really know the translation of the spices mentioned in the gemara.  The other groups says that one should translate this bracha as "aromatic woody plants", in which case it applies quite nicely to jasmine and costus.

The Biur Halacha concludes that the appropriate bracha on these spices and herbs is בורא מיני בשמים.  That is, don't get involved with a machlokes when you don't have to.  Sound advice when entering a new week.


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