The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Sensual Kabbalah: Olfaction in Jewish Esoteric Traditions

Kabbalah scholarship has been especially interested in the ocular dimensions of mystical experience, thereby downplaying the role of other senses. Vision and color imagery have therefore held a central place in studies of ecstatic experiences as well as mystical journeys into the heavens, from ancient Jewish mysticism and through classical Kabbalah and major theosophical texts. In my proposed lecture I wish to discuss one of neglected senses, the olfactory sense. In my lecture I will address the fundamental discrepancy between pleasant fragrances and malodors in both esoteric and kabbalistic writings, particularly as a means of defining the categories of beings, which at times cross the boundaries of identity.

While the demonic spirits were habitually reported to discharge a foul odor, smells stemming from the heavenly realm, as for example the aroma of apples or the apple field as a term for Shekhinah, were also prominent. These descriptions include the scents of Garden of Eden, fruity and the fragrances of flowers, promises of future pleasures, and deferred satisfaction of desire of the scent-emitting body. I will also discuss the paradigmatic distribution of odors which became distorted in description of something being odorless. The lecture will engage both manuscript evidence as well as printed kabbalistic opera including writings attributed to Ḥasidei Ashkenaz, kabbalistic secrets (sodot), zoharic homilies, Cordovero’s Shiʼur Qomah. It may open a door towards a serious consideration of esoteric odorosofia, as a vital aspect of kabbalistic synesthetic imaginary.