The Spice of Life: Sensing Taste and Smell

Every spring when we travel to the Poconos to spend time at our vacation home, I look forward to opening the car window as we cross the Dingmans Ferry Bridge into Pennsylvania and smelling the beautiful  scent of the pine trees.  The air has a very fresh aromatic smell because the pines are so dense in Pike County. (Even our golden retriever Reba notices the difference.)

Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion about what is being called post-COVID-19 syndrome in print and on television.  Some people who have recovered from COVID-19 report that they continue to have life debilitating symptoms that include headaches, lack of focus, and fatigue. But what truly got my attention was their reported diminished sense of taste and smell. These two senses are intimately connected. The loss of these two senses left many post-COVID-19 people depressed because, unable to recognize the foods that they tasted, they merely experienced their unappealing textures.  During the pandemic, millions of people have lost their senses of taste and smell in an instant.

Imagine seeing your favorite food that you have enjoyed for years but lacking the ability to smell or wanting to taste it. The food would surely be flat and unappealing.  According to current medical opinion, there is no “on switch” to bring back olfaction, and scientists agree that currently there is no cure. But they do agree that  daily repetitive sniffing of various aromas can be useful, working as a kind of sensitization therapy for an injured nose or brain. The author of a recent New York Times described trying to smell things like coffee beans, tea leaves, spices, herbs and essential oils to restore her sense of smell.

In Judaism we have blessings for all occasions that are intended to remind us to appreciate the many things that we enjoy in life, but often take for granted. There are blessings for seeing a rainbow, the ocean, seeing blossoms for the first time in the spring, and of course blessings over different kinds of food. There is even a blessing for smelling the fragrance of a tree, a fragrant plant, fragrant oil and there is a special blessing for smelling spices.  Each week at sundown on Saturday evenings many Jewish people inhale the sweet scents of aromatic spices, symbolic of the holy Sabbath in a ceremony known as Havdalah (separation). 

 We should never take our ability to taste or smell for granted. This is one of the daily miracles in our life. Whether you realize it or not, your nose is constantly alerting you to potential danger that is out of sight—smoke, gas leaks, spoiled food, sewage.  Even bad smells are good, because they are full of important information about your surroundings that help keep you well.  Wonderful moments in life are often recalled by their distinctive scents. Perhaps  aromas remind you of something in your childhood— the cologne or perfume of your mother or father or the smell of a chlorinated pool, the same type of smell when you first learned to float on your stomach when you took swimming lessons.

I sincerely hope that our best scientific minds will figure out how to help people regain their precious sense of taste and smell.  This week, I will be particularly grateful  to commemorate the end of the Jewish Sabbath with the Havdalah ceremony, and to take a whiff and recite the blessing over the fragrant spices:  Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam boray meenay besameem.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe who creates all kinds of spices.

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