The Talmud teaches that the coming of Shabbat provides each of us with a “Shabbat soul,” an extra spiritual dimension that allows us to be more receptive to the joy, relaxation and celebration that are the hallmarks of the holiday.
Since this soul is said to leave at the end of Shabbat, we smell besamim (perfumes) during havdalah as a way of comforting ourselves for this loss. Rabbi Raphie Schochet, director of the Providence Kollel Center for Jewish Studies, expanded on this by saying “smell is the closest we come to spiritual pleasure, because it’s intangible, ephemeral.”
Most havdalah besamim are a mixture of cloves, cinnamon and other fragrant spices. These have been traditionally used because they are compact and retain their scent for a long time, but besamim used for havdalah can be almost any fragrant, natural substance.
The all-inclusive blessing for smelling pleasant fragrances is Borei minei besamim. Rabbi Aaron Philmus, of Temple Torat Yisrael, in East Greenwich, said for plants and grasses, the blessing is Borei isvei besamim, and it’s Borei atzei besamim for trees and shrubs.
The following plants are ideal for a havdalah garden. Most of their scents are meant to be enjoyed fresh, rather than dried, and the short life of cut flowers echoes the transitive nature of the Shabbat soul. As most of these plants are perennials, you can look forward to enjoying their fragrances year after year.
Clematis is a member of the buttercup family, and its climbing vines are easy to grow. There are hundreds of varieties in a wide assortment of colors, shapes and scents. Some have subtle fragrances, while others can be quite strong. Scents commonly associated with clematis include almond, citrus, vanilla and spice.
Dianthus are also known as carnations. If you only know them from prearranged bouquets, you’ve been missing out! Their flowers can be absolutely spectacular in appearance, and they come in a variety of multicolored patterns and shapes. Dianthus’ spicy-sweet, clove-like scent makes them perfect for besamim.
Scented geraniums are cousins of “true” geraniums (Cranesbill), and are known for their wide range of fragrances, which can be floral, fruity, nutty or herbal. Online sources list at least 30 “flavors,” making it that much easier to personalize your fresh spice box. Scented geraniums (Pelargonium) are annual plants and must be brought inside to over-winter them before the first frost.
Honeysuckle’s sweet distinctive aroma is familiar to most people. The scent of this climbing vine can enhance the sweetness of your besamim and provide a contrast to any strong herbal notes.
Lavender is another scent that most people recognize. Its unique perfume is said to have calming properties, and it’s a perfect counterpoint to the sweet scent of honeysuckle.
Mint is an easy-to-grow garden favorite. In fact, the toughest thing about growing mint might be choosing which varieties you want in your garden. In addition to classics like spearmint and peppermint, you can find mint plants in flavors as diverse as chocolate, pineapple and even bubblegum! Please note that mint is invasive and can quickly take over a garden; it’s best to keep mint plants in containers or in metal- or plastic-edged beds.
Sweet woodruff blooms with small, delicate, white flowers. It has very little odor when fresh, but when wilted or crushed, it releases a lovely odor of fresh hay. This grassy scent offers an excellent contrast to the bright perfume of scented geraniums.
Verbena, also known as vervain, has flowers that grow in dense spikes that are most often blue, but there are also white, pink and purple cultivars. Verbena is noted for its lemony, grassy smell, which has made it a favorite in herbal teas. Properly taken care of, it will bloom nonstop throughout the growing season.
Yarrow grows in tall stalks topped by tight clusters of flowers. When crushed, its feathery, fern-like leaves and flowers provide a pleasant, spicy smell reminiscent of chrysanthemums. Some say it smells like rosemary, oregano and other cooking herbs blended together.
Not only do these plants smell wonderful, but they are also colorful, pretty and attractive to butterflies. Making these plants part of your garden will make it easy to customize your besamim throughout the season and beyond, for years to come.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.