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"Making 'Scents' of the Torah"

“And to the Lord said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be a like weight.” (Exodus 30:34).

Fragrant materials were central to religious rituals long before Judaism began about three thousand years ago, notes Barry Shell, a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C. and creator of– the top Google hit for any search on Canadian science.
He will be speaking on “Making Scents of the Torah” at the 2015 Limmud Festival of Jewish Learning and Culture, March 14-15, at the Asper Jewish Community Centre.
The Torah contains 58 references to perfumes and fragrant compounds, including the recipe for ketoret in the book of Exodus, which comes with an admonition from G-D not to smell it, or risk excommunication from the tribe, Shell said during a telephone interview from his home.
“In class we will discuss and smell 10 of the 26 natural ingredients mentioned in the Old Testament; things like Hyssop, Cistus, and Spikenard,” added the former Winnipegger, who attended the old Talmud Torah School, and then, later, attended the Herzlia Academy, which was on Brock Street in River Heights.
“I will tell all sorts of stories about the plants, the sources, the countries they grow in, how they might have come to be in Israel at the time the Bible was written, how they were used over the millennia not just for their smell but for their pharmacological properties. We will learn how essential oils are distilled from plant resins.”
Shell, who’s married and has two adult children, is the author of four books, and has had articles published in magazines and newspapers, including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times.
He has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, Oregon and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC.
His book, “Sensational Scientists,” profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books won a national book award in 2005.
“Another key point I want to get across is that we don’t know how smell works,” Shell stressed.
“This is still one of the mysteries of science. Think. If we did know how it works, we’d have all sorts of devices for copying smells. But we don’t have any of these for smell. The reason we don’t have any tools for dealing with smells is because unlike the eyes and ears, we simply don’t know how smell works.
“I find a lot of things in the Torah to be equally mysterious. So I want to link the mystery of smell with the mystery of Torah understanding. We really don’t know what the Torah means in a lot of passages, including the passages that describe how to make certain smells like ketoret (incense offering) and a lot of it is up for speculation.”
Similarly science does not know how the nose works, but there is much speculation about various mechanisms, he said.
“Still, speculation is not enough to build anything useful,” Shell offered.
“It’s just a guess and you can’t make things like televisions and tape recorders by just guessing. You need solid science. And we don’t have any useful science for how smell works–just our noses.”
For instance, he points out that all people have different abilities in terms of smell, just like people have different levels of acuity in their vision.
Yet we don’t have corrective “smell glasses” to bring our sense of smell up to “20:20” levels.
“We just don’t have any of this because we don’t know how it works,” said Shell.
“And yet, the sense of smell is the most ancient of all senses, and the most intimate.”
He observed that even bacteria can “smell.”
“Every living thing has a way of communicating via molecules,” Shell remarked.
“That is what smell is: the most primitive form of communication. And what is the Torah–in fact what is the essence of Judaism? We are the people of the book. We exist because we communicate through this book–the Torah–reading it every Saturday morning and then discussing what it contains. So that’s another parallel – communication.”

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