Of the five senses, Jewish tradition says that the sense of smell is bursting with holiness. Not sight or sound or touch or taste. These senses were corrupted in the Garden of Eden. But the sense of smell remained as it was, with the potential for expanding holiness.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve defiled four out of their five senses. They heard the serpent’s alluring words, the fruit was “a delight to the eyes”, they touched it by taking from its fruit, and they tasted it. But the sense of “smell” remained untarnished. Accordingly, this sense denotes inner purity and deep attachment to God. As we know, God blew life into Adam through his nostrils. Smell retraces the holy, unadulterated level of our innermost soul – the neshama – that is free of defilement.
With each of the burnt offerings to God in Leviticus, there is a pleasing odor. Whether the smell of animal or grain or incense, the smoke rises to heaven to remind God of God’s love for us. God gave life through the nostrils (Genesis 2:7). creating an association of smell with our life force. We reenact the giving of life through the nostrils when we smell the incense at the end of Shabbat in our Havdalah ceremony.
Pirke avot, the sayings of the ancestors, offers a list of ten wonders fashioned for our ancestors in the Temple. The first is that no woman miscarried from the odor of the sacred flesh. The verse challenges us to connect an act used to praise God with the protection of new life within the womb.
With the destruction of the Temple, the system of sacrifice was abandoned. If Pirke Avot is to be believed, more women should now suffer the loss of a miscarriage. The sacrificial ritual for preserving life is gone. No new ritual has taken its place.
Early in my rabbinic career, a young couple asked me to visit a hospital’s neonatal care ward. Twins had been born prematurely. The son died shortly after birth. The mother wanted to name the other twin, her daughter, in an attempt to affirm and protect life. I blessed the daughter but had no ritual to offer for the deceased son.
Approximately twenty percent of all pregnancies, about one in five, will end in a miscarriage. In Jewish law, an embryo is not considered life. In fact, Talmud says the embryo is merely water (Yevamot 69b). After a miscarriage, we don’t say kaddish. No burial ceremony occurs. Judaism offers no ritual for a lost pregnancy. Moreover, Judaism offers little comfort to the women and men who suffer the anguish of a miscarriage.
The absence of a public ritual may leave the would-be mother bereft. Friends and family are at a loss as to how to respond. The bereaved should not feel shunned and abandoned in their time of grief.
We can and should create a ritual. I believe that ritual should engage our sense of smell. Something sweet prompts us to notice the goodness in the world. A pleasant fragrance restores our souls. Something savory reminds us that blessings are precious. And perhaps the ritual should take place on Saturday night after Shabbat when we re-ensoul ourselves with incense.
A mother expects to see her child, feel its tender skin, and quell its cries. I suspect that no ritual can supplant those expectations or satiate those senses. Should this notion speak to you, please offer your thoughts on how we can provide balm in the ritual context, to offer comfort and hope to the mother who has suffered a miscarriage.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame