Today’s daf (Beitzah 33b) makes reference to woods with a fragrance, noting that ‘we may handle fragrant woods [on Shabbat] to smell them’. And while it is true that some woods have a fragrance, a further truth is that the עץ חיים – the tree of life – of Torah also has a fragrance.
Significantly, the Gemara (Shabbat 88b) remarks that when each of the Ten Commandments was spoken, the whole world filled with fragrance. What this means, if taken literally, is that aside from the Jewish people hearing the decalogue, they actually smelt it.
Clearly it is difficult to fathom what our Rabbis meant by this phrase. Still, I believe that by using this language, they are teaching us something very deep – which is that our experience of Torah needs to go beyond what we see, and within what we can smell.
As I previously explained in my commentary to Yoma 14 (see https://rabbijohnnysolomon.com/yoma-14/), ‘many people think that a Jew is defined by how they look. But, as the Maharal explains (Chiddushei Aggadot on Sanhedrin 93b), while it is possible to wear the right garb, and say the right things to try and give off the right image (as Yaakov did to his father Yitzchak), the ultimate quality of a Jew is not measured by their physical clothes. Instead, as the prophet Yeshayahu (11:3) teaches in the words: הֲרִיחוֹ בְּיִרְאַת ה’ וְלֹא לְמַרְאֵה עֵינָיו יִשְׁפּוֹט וְלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אָזְנָיו יוֹכִיחַ – ‘And his scent shall be in the fear of the Lord; he shall not judge by what his eyes see, nor decide by what his ears hear’’.
Similarly, as the Shach commentary on Yoreh Deah 89 notes, there are particular behaviours which should be adopted by those with a ריח תורה – a scent of Torah. In doing so, he was making the point that while a Jew can simply act in accordance with the laws of the Torah, there is a richer and more spiritually inclined approach that we can adopt to the mitzvot where we live spiritually fragrant lives and where we connect with Torah not only on an intellectual level, but also on a spiritual level too.
Returning to Beitzah 33b and applying the concept of ריח תורה to the words in our daf, it should be clear that when we ‘handle’ (i.e. study and live in accordance with) Torah, we should do so not only to have an appearance of being connected to Torah, but also so that the fragrance of Torah rubs off on us.