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Does One Recite a Beracha When Smelling Synthetic Perfume?

Does one recite a Beracha before smelling synthetic perfumes? As we know, a Beracha is recited before smelling fragrant spices and plants, and during Habdala, for example, it is customary to recite the Beracha of "Besamim" over rosewater or Hadasim, which are naturally fragrant. The question arises, however, as to whether the Beracha is recited also before smelling synthetic perfumes, which are produced from chemicals. It occasionally happens in the synagogue that no regular Besamim are available, but someone has some synthetic perfume that could be used. Can the Beracha be recited over such a product, or was the Beracha instituted only over naturally-fragrant plants?

This issue is subject to considerable debate, and prominent Halachic authorities can be found on both sides of the controversy. On the one hand, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995) and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012) maintained that since the perfume is not a naturally fragrant substance, no Beracha is recited. But on the other side, Rav Haim Pinhas Scheinberg (1910-2012), as well as Hacham Bension Abba Shaul (1923-1998) in his Or Le’sion (vol. 2, p. 137), claimed that one does recite a Beracha over synthetic perfumes.

Hacham Ovadia Yosef, in his Hazon Ovadia – Berachot (p. 313), followed the second view, and ruled that one recites a Beracha before smelling a synthetically fragrant substance. He draws proof from the Gemara’s discussion in Masechet Berachot (43) where it is stated that one recites a Beracha before reciting musk, which is produced from animal droppings. Quite obviously, this substance is not naturally fragrant, and some chemical techniques are performed to produce the pleasant scent. And thus just as a Beracha is recited over this substance, similarly, a Beracha is recited over modern-day synthetic perfumes. Hacham Ovadia also notes the ruling of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204) in Hilchot Berachot (9:3) that if one whips some olive oil and it produces a pleasant fragrance, he recites the Beracha of "Boreh Aseh Besamim" before smelling it. Olive oil is not naturally fragrant, but once it is processed such that it produces a pleasant scent, it requires a Beracha. By the same token, any synthetic fragrance should require the recitation of a Beracha. This was also the position taken by Rabbi Moshe Halevi (1961-2001), in his work Birkat Hashem (vol. 3, p. 525).

However, Hacham Ovadia’s son, Hacham David Yosef, writes in his work Halacha Berura that in conversation with his father he convinced him to change his mind, and Hacham Ovadia ultimately accepted the view that one does not recite a Beracha over synthetic perfume. The question thus becomes whether one should follow the Hacham’s written ruling or the claim made by his son that he retracted this ruling. Rabbi Bitan argues that one cannot question an explicitly written Halachic ruling on the basis of oral testimony to its retraction. He cites a passage in the work Or Torah where the author advances this argument. Rabbi Bitan writes: "The author likewise rejected testimony given in Halacha Berura, explaining we must not rely on verbal answers to questions presented to Maran if they contradict published rulings, considering he researched and considered those rulings fully before committing them to writing. The written ruling presented in Hazon Ovadia is far more reliable than any ruling Maran might have issued verbally." And thus Rabbi Bitan concludes (in Hilchot Berachot, vol. 3, p. 346) that one should recite a Beracha before smelling synthetic perfume, and this is the ruling that should be followed.

Summary: One recites the Beracha of "Besamim" over synthetic perfume, and it may be used for "Besamim" in Habdala.


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