Dill, Eggs and Shabat Fragrances
A Roman emperor once asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya the reason for the alluring aroma of the Sabbath meals. The rabbi said: “We Jews have a special spice called Shebet which we use to prepare our meals for the Shabat.” When the emperor asked if he might have some, R. Yehoshua rebuffed him: “It only works for those who diligently keep the Shabat.” (Shabat 119a)
The words Shebet and Shabat are spelled the same in Hebrew, Shin, Bet, Taf. Certain Jewish communities pronounce them almost the same. Shabat is the seventh day on which we rest while Shebet means dill.
Maharsh”a (Rabbi Shmuel Idlish, Krakow 5328) states that Rebbe Yehoshua put Cesar off by saying a word which sounds like Shabat but is really the yummy spice of dill. The Mishna (Mesechet Uktsin – Thorns 3-4) states that Dill (Shebet) cannot become impure once it has given flavor to the cooked food. Rebbe Yehoshua elaborated to Cesar that his real intention was to Shabat itself. Cesar had not understood this, therefore, he asked for some ordinary Dill (Shebet) to season his food with. Rebbe Yehoshua explained to Cesar that the spice really refers to Shabat. Whoever keeps Shabat can taste it. Whoever does not keep Shabat will not benefit from the special flavor.
Rabbienu Yosef Chayim : ( 5594 – 5669 1834-1909 CE) of Bagdad in his book Ben Yehoyada gives a mystical interpretation: Our Rabbis have told us that Shabat is similar to the enjoyment in the world to come. They have also stated that in the world to come people don’t eat. Rabbienu Yosef Chayim states that they survive on a pleasant fragrance. The illumination of Shabat also illuminates the food. The food smells much better because it is imbibed with the fragrance that nourishes the souls in the world to come.
Rabbienu Yosef Chayim goes on to cite an ancient story that occurred in the City of Baghdad. A Jewish man wanted to become a Muslim recognized by the government. According to their understanding of Islam one is not recognized as Muslim until the local rabbi talks to him while they are alone and tries to convince him not to convert. After refusing to accept the rabbi’s words the conversion is recognized as binding and not having been forced. This Jewish man continued in his rebellion and did not accept any of the rabbis’ kind words. Just before the Rabbi left an old friend of the rebellious Jew appeared. This friend remembered that the rebellious Jew always loved to eat the eggs which are placed on top of the Shabat food left to cook overnight (Hamin, Cholent). He used to eat seven or eight of them at a time. The friend asked, “After you convert how will you get such delicious eggs? These eggs are only found among Jews who keep Shabat.” His words made their way to the rebellious Jews stomach, mind and heart and he immediately decided not to become a Muslim because of the Shabat Eggs.
Rabbienu Yosef Chayim of Bagdad in another aggadic work called Benayahu discusses the wonderful odor of Shabat food. On Shabat a pious man went to visit another pious man who he really liked. He brought his own Shabat food prepared at home since he had not informed the host that he would be arriving. Both the host’s and the guests’ food were served at the same time. The host immediately noticed that the guest’s food smelled ten times better than his own. When asked why the guest’s food smelled better He answered, “my wife’s lips are as lilies, dropping with flowing myrrh (a reference to Shir Hashirim 5 –13), she spiced the food. Your servants prepare your food. The servants do not explicitly state that they are preparing the food ‘in honor of Shabat’. That is why my food smells better than yours.”
The stories we cited are very difficult to understand. The sense of smell is very powerful. A “special” fragrance can trigger entire memories of events that might have happened years earlier. The fragrances of Shabbat demonstrate this.
This concept is difficult to fathom. The Gemarah that opened this discussion informs us that the smells of Shabbat trigger a tremendous feeling of pleasure. This pleasure is maximized when participating in a weekly Shabbat feast. Rabbienu Yosef Chayim hypothesizes that this indescribable pleasure is but a small portion of the massive amount of pleasure waiting for those who have already benefited from the odors of Shabbat.
Ordinary people can experience the spiritual element of the fragrance of Shabat food. It was the Roman emperor who questioned Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya why the Shabbat food smells so nice. Roman Emporers were not known to be very spiritual people. Rabbi Yehoshua stated that this fragrance can only be produced in honor of Shabat.