Putrid Fish and Citrons in the Garbage Heaps of Mata Meḥasia: Scent and Smelling in the Babylonian Talmud
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Doctoral dissertation, PhD / YU only
This dissertation examines attitudes towards scent and smelling in the Babylonian Talmud. I compare material in the Babylonian Talmud to Palestinian Tannaitic and Amoraic texts to determine what is new and unique. The possibility that the scents of prohibited substances are prohibited appears in the Babylonian Talmud and in baraitot therein, without much precedent. In the Babylonian Talmud, Rava and Abaye discuss the permissibility of smelling idolatrous wine (B. AZ 66a-b). Scent also came to be seen as relevant in kashrut (B. Pes 76a-b). The anonymous redactional layer of the Talmud interprets these debates as about the nature of scent, displaying interest in thinking about scent conceptually. Regarding rules of distancing from foul substances before prayer, the subjective sensory experience of the worshipper, including what he smells, is treated as more significant in the Babylonian material than in earlier texts (B. Ber 24b-25a). This trend may reflect internal legal development. I suggest that legal interest in scent also reflects cultural trends, like increasing interest in subjective sensory experience and in scent specifically. Babylonian exegetical and narrative traditions relate to smelling as a commendable spiritual gift (B. Ber 43b, B. San 93b, B. Niddah 20b, B. Sotah 49a). Middle Persian sources similarly associate fragrance with purity, and stench with impurity. In contrast, sources from the Greco-Roman world sometimes treat scent more ambivalently, as animalistic or deceptive.¶ I also consider what we can know of ancient olfactory experience and what the world smelled like. Attitudes would have impacted how scents were perceived. Scents could be real and revealing. They could also be dangerous and alluring as they wafted unseen. Scents signified different things. For example, the scent of citrons marked class, while myrtle marked moments. The fragrances used to scent bodies could also be efficacious remedies. Considering scents that would have been encountered in the Jewish communities of Sasanian Babylonia, and how those scents were perceived, adds texture to our understanding of daily life.
Wolkenfeld, M. (2022, March). Putrid Fish and Citrons in the Garbage Heaps of Mata Meḥasia: Scent and Smelling in the Babylonian Talmud. (Publication No. 29252115) [Doctoral dissertation, Yeshiva University]. PQDT.
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