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What Bracha Do I Make Before Smelling the Shavuos Flowers?

My husband brought me beautiful roses for Shavuos. Should I make a bracha before smelling them? I have noticed that sometimes there is no noticeable fragrance.
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Question #1: My husband brought me beautiful roses for Shavuos. Should I make a bracha before smelling them? I have noticed that sometimes there is no noticeable fragrance.

Question #2: In honor of Yom Tov, we bought a colorful bouquet of mixed fragrant flowers. What bracha do I recite before I smell them?

Question #3: What bracha do I make before smelling carnations or lilacs?

It is an established custom to decorate our homes and shuls on Shavuos with flowers. However, many people do not realize that before smelling these flowers one must recite a bracha (Shulchan Aruch 216:1). This applies both to harvested flowers and plants and to those still connected to the ground (Biyur Halacha 216:1). By making a bracha on these flowers, we utilize their fragrance to praise Hashem for the beautiful flowers He has provided. At the same time, we should be aware that the Gemara's declaration that one who benefits from this world without making a bracha has stolen from Hashem and from the Jewish people (Gemara Berachos 35b) applies to fragrances just as it applies to foods.

FRAGRANT CATEGORIES

Before explaining which bracha to recite before smelling each type of flower, we must first introduce the different brachos and when we recite them. Chazal established five different brachos that relate to scent, each for a different category of fragrance:

1. Borei shemen areiv, "The Creator of pleasant oil" is recited only on the fragrant oil extracted from the balsam tree (Mishnah Berurah 216:22). Because this tree was important and grew in Eretz Yisroel, Chazal established this special bracha (Rabbeinu Yonah, Berachos 43a).

2. Hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros "He who bestows pleasant fragrances in fruits" (Shulchan Aruch 216:2). We recite this bracha before smelling fragrant edible fruits and other foods (Rama 216:14). Some poskim rule that the proper text for this bracha should be in past tense: Asher nasan rei’ach tov ba’peiros, "He who bestowed pleasant fragrances in fruits" (Mishnah Berurah 216:9).

3. Borei atzei besamim, "The Creator of fragrant wood (or trees)." One recites this bracha before smelling fragrant woody plants and trees or their leaves, flowers, wood, or oils. As we will see, it is disputed whether the word atzei is translated as wood or as trees . According to all opinions, someone who wants to smell cedar, pine, or lavender should first recite this bracha.

4. Borei isvei besamim, "The Creator of fragrant grasses." We recite this bracha before smelling non-woody plants, their parts and extracts. Before smelling a fragrant hyacinth, narcissus, or lily one recites this bracha.

5. Borei minei besamim, "The Creator of different types of fragrances." This is the "catch-all" bracha for all fragrances, the equivalent of reciting a shehakol on food.
One recites borei minei besamim on fragrant items that are of non-vegetable origin, such as musk, which comes from an animal gland. We also recite borei minei besamim on a fragrance blended from sources that alone would require different brachos, and we recite it when one is uncertain what bracha to recite. In addition, the custom among Ashkenazim is to recite this bracha when making havdalah in order to avoid confusion -even if one uses a fragrance that would otherwise require a different bracha. Sefardim recite the same bracha at havdalah that one would otherwise recite before smelling the particular fragrance.

ARE FLOWERS ALWAYS FRAGRANT?
A word of caution about making brachos on supposedly "fragrant" flowers: Horticulturalists and nurseries do not breed flowers for fragrance but for their chief marketable qualities, which are color, size, and longevity. As a result, commercially raised cut flowers such as roses, violets, tulips, and carnations often have no fragrance. Before reciting a bracha on smelling these flowers, one must first sniff the flower to see whether it has a fragrance. Having determined that it does have a pleasant fragrance, one recites a bracha and smells it again. Although it is prohibited to benefit from this world without first reciting a bracha, in this instance we have no choice but to smell the flower first (Ketzos HaShulchan 62:1).

In the case of some plants where one is uncertain whether they are fragrant, there is another option. One can rub one’s hand along the stem or leaf and then smells one’s hand. This fragrance does not require a bracha because it is called a rei’ach she’ayn lo ikar, "a fragrance without a source." If one detects a pleasant fragrance on one’s hand, one can then make the appropriate bracha on the flower or plant and smell it directly.

WHAT IF I RECITED THE WRONG BRACHA ON A FRAGRANCE?
It is important to note that the three choices hanosain rei’ach tov ba’peiros, borei atzei besamim, and borei isvei besamim are mutually exclusive. If something is considered a food, it is not considered a wood or a grass, and reciting either atzei or isvei before smelling it is a bracha in vain. Similarly, reciting either isvei or rei'ach tov ba'peiros on a fragrant wood is a bracha in vain, as is reciting rei'ach tov ba'peiros, or atzei before smelling a grass.

Thus, determining the correct bracha on a fragrance is often more important than determining the correct bracha on a food for the following reason: If one recites borei pri ha’adamah on a fruit that should be borei pri ha’eitz, one fulfills the minimal requirement bedi’eved (after the fact) and one does not recite an additional bracha of borei pri ha’eitz. The reason for this is that every tree grows from the ground - thus praising Hashem for "creating the fruit of the ground" when eating a fruit that grew on a tree is not inaccurate. Therefore someone who is uncertain whether a certain fruit is "of the tree" or "of the ground" should recite borei pri ha’adamah before eating it.

However, when in doubt whether to recite atzei besamim or isvei besamim on a specific fragrance, one may not recite either bracha. This is because trees and grasses are mutually exclusive categories - if something is a grass, it is not a tree. Thus, reciting the bracha praising Hashem for creating fragrant grasses before smelling a tree is a bracha li’vatalah, a bracha said in vain, because it is inaccurate (Magen Avraham 216:16; Mishnah Berurah 216:39). When someone is uncertain whether a plant is considered a tree or a grass, he should recite the bracha, borei minei besamim (Shulchan Aruch 216:2), even though this is certainly not the preferred bracha on this fragrance.

WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA FOR THE BRACHA OF BOREI ATZEI BESAMIM?
Some poskim rule that any fragrant plant that is perennial (lasts from year to year) and has a woody stem that remains above ground from year to year requires the bracha of Borei atzei besamim (Aruch; Ketzos HaShulchan 62:1). These include lilac, lavender, and hadasim, as well as fragrant trees such as cedar, eucalyptus, and juniper.

According to this approach, the correct bracha on any woody annual (non-perennial) plant or one whose stem dies through the winter (even if the root remains alive) is borei isvei besamim since it does not qualify as a tree, but as a grass. Reciting borei atzei besamim on this plant is a bracha in vain according to these poskim since it is not a tree but a grass.

Others contend that the correct bracha on woody or fibrous plants is borei atzei besamim even if they are annuals or the stem dies during the winter. Reciting borei isvei besamim is a bracha in vain according to this opinion since halacha considers them to be "wood" not "grass" (Shitah Mekubetzes; see also Pri Megadim 216:15 in Eishel Avraham and Biyur Halacha, 216:3).

HOW DO WE PASKIN?
The Biyur Halacha (203:3) rules that one should treat this question as a safek, an unresolved halachic issue. Therefore, we cannot recite either atzei besamim or isvei besamim and we must recite borei minei besamim before smelling any fragrant woody or fibrous plant that is an annual or whose stem dies in the winter.

Alternatively, before smelling such plants one could first recite atzei besamim on a plant that is perennial and has a definite woody part and also recite isvei besamim on something that does not have a lasting stem. This way one has definitely fulfilled the required bracha.

WHICH COMMON PLANTS AND FLOWERS ARE QUESTIONABLE WHETHER THEY ARE ATZEI BESAMIM OR ISVEI BESAMIM?
Some varieties of mint might fit into this uncertain category, as do carnations. In the case of mint, there is also another shaylah, since some poskim rule that the bracha should be hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros since many varieties are used as food or as seasonings (Shu’t Ginas Veradim #41). Nevertheless, the prevalent custom is to recite isvei besamim before smelling mint (Birkei Yosef 216:2; Kaf HaChayim 216:13; Ketzos HaShulchan 62:2; Yalkut Yosef).

THAT WHICH WE CALL A ROSE
The Rishonim dispute what is the correct bracha to recite before smelling roses. Most roses grow on perennial bushes and one would think the bracha should be atzei besamim. However, Rashba and several other poskim rule that since the fruit of the rose, which is called the rosehip, is eaten, the correct bracha on roses is hanosain rei’ach tov ba’peiros (Tur, quoting Gaon; Beis Yosef, quoting Raavad and Rashba). In earlier times, rosehip jelly was a fairly common food. In our era, people who eat rosehips usually eat them for their vitamin C value, not because they are a choice food, although rosehips are also used for herbal tea.

This is an interesting dispute, because here again, according to this second opinion, reciting atzei besamim on roses is a bracha in vain since roses are a food and not a wood. Therefore some poskim conclude that one should recite borei minei besamim on roses, since it is a safek (Kaf HaChayim). However, the consensus is that roses are not considered a food and the bracha on their fragrance is borei atzei besamim (Rambam; Rosh; Tur Shulchan Aruch).

WHAT ABOUT ROSE OIL?
This question leads us to another major practical difference between the brachos on fragrances and on foods. Any part of a plant as well as its oil or extract maintains the same bracha as the plant itself. Thus, the blessing before smelling the flowers, leaves, or bark of a plant that is borei atzei besamim is also borei atzei besamim. Similarly, the bracha before smelling any part or extract of a plant that is isvei besamim is also borei isvei besamim, and the blessing before smelling any part of the tree or plant on which a fragrant edible fruit grows is hanosein rei’ach tov ba’peiros. Thus, the correct bracha before smelling rose oil, sandalwood oil, or cinnamon leaf oil is borei atzei besamim, while the bracha on oil of lemongrass is borei isvei besamim. Similarly, if one smells eucalyptus oil or oil of wintergreen because he enjoys the fragrance, he recites borei atzei besamim.

It should be noted that some contemporary poskim contend that one should not recite borei atzei besamim or borei isvei besamim on a fragrance that is distilled since the material is vaporized as part of the distillation process. According to this approach, one would probably recite borei minei besamim on most oils since I suspect that they are all distilled in order to purify them.

SMELLING THE SHAVUOS FLOWERS
If one has a bouquet of several fragrant flowers -- if all the fragrant flowers are of one bracha, then he/she should recite that bracha. If the flowers are of different brachos, then:

If I can smell the flowers separately, I should make the bracha on the atzei besamim flower first and smell it, and then on the isvei besamim and smell it because atzei besamim is more specific (Mishnah Berurah 216:40). However, if I have a personal preference for the isvei besamim species, then I should recite the bracha and smell it first (Magen Avraham 216:16). In this instance, if there are flowers on which I would usually recite minei besamim because of doubt, I should not recite any bracha on them at all, because I have now covered their bracha with the bracha made on the other flowers.

IN CONCLUSION:

What bracha do I recite before smelling my Shavuos flowers? We can now present this simple list:

On the following flowers and plants one recites borei atzei besamim:
Azalea, cedar, gardenia, hadas, honey suckle, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lilacs, pine, roses, rose geranium and spruce.

On the following flowers and plants one recites borei isvei besamim:
Daylily, hyacinth, lilies, lily-of-the-valley, lemongrass, marigold, mint, narcissus, sweet alyssum, tulips, vetiver, and violets.

On the following flowers one should recite borei minei besamim:
Carnation; according to some poskim, all distilled substances.

Bear in mind that if I am uncertain if the flowers are fragrant I should smell them first to check. If I know that they are fragrant, I may not smell them without first reciting a bracha.

Hashem graced this world with flowers in many shapes, sizes, hues, and colors, all making our world a more beautiful place. The pleasant aroma of flowers is yet another gift from Hashem and we enjoy their fragrance after reciting the proper blessing to show our appreciation.

The author acknowledges the tremendous assistance provided by Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky for the horticultural information used in researching this article.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site
Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
Was the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, the Congregation Darchei Tzedek and also served as a dayan on the Beis Din of Baltimore. Now is a Rabbi in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem. His Shiurim and Q&A can be found on his site: www.rabbikaganoff.com
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