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The Sound of Incense
by Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover

It’s a common misconception that we possess five distinct senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). In actuality, argues Donald Katz, a neurobiologist from Brandies University, our senses are far more intertwined than we think.

There are people with a mysterious condition known as synesthesia, who “taste” colors or “see” sounds. For them, a visual experience like color somehow gets interpreted in the brain as a taste – maple syrup, say, or vanilla. However, this condition is not considered a flaw or disease – rather, synesthesists feel they have a heightened sensitivity; an expanded sensory palette.

This phenomenon echoes the description of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The verse says that during this event, the Jewish people “saw the thunder and heard the lightning.”

As explained in Chassidic teachings, this was not so much an unusual sensory experience as a spiritual one. For the moment, they experienced the spiritual world as real and immediate, while the physical world felt vague and distant – a complete reversal of our normal state of existence.

Dr. Daniel Wesson of the Institute for Psychiatric Research in New York coined the word “smound,” a combination of smell and sound, to describe a recently discovered overlap between the olfactory and auditory sensations. In his research on mice, he discovered that the same olfactory neurons were sensitive to both sound and smell. He also found that exposure to sound intensified the sense of smell.

The juxtaposition of sound and smell also has an origin in the Torah. Rabbi Nathan taught that while the kohanim ground the herbs for incense used in the Holy Temple, they would chant “Grind it well, grind it well,” because the rhythm of the voice sound is good for the spices. This instruction must have seemed rather peculiar – until Dr. Wesson’s discovery. It is now known that the combination of fragrance and rhythm heighten the experience of both.

Moshiach will be known for his unusual sense of smell, as the verse in Isaiah (11:3) states: “And he shall be animated by the fear of the Lord, and neither with the sight of his eyes shall he judge, nor with the hearing of his ears shall he chastise.” Commentaries explain that using his sense of smell alone, he will be able to detect who is righteous and who is guilty.

If that sounds unjust – to be found guilty or innocent just by smell alone! – Chassidic teachings explain that smell is a metaphor for sensitivity. Moshiach will not judge only by the “sight of his eyes or the hearing of his ears.” In other words, he will not only consider one’s immediate circumstances. Rather, Moshiach will use his extraordinary divine sensitivity to uncover the essence of each individual, to restore him to righteousness.
Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover is chairman of the Center of Magnetohydrodynamic Studies and Training at Ben-Gurion University. 

 

 


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