Freedom’s Smell

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min.


Bottling my perfume.

Last month, on vacation, I spent a morning taking a perfume class. I  had looked forward to this for over a year. The experience was everything I hoped it would be. It was creative, fun and educational. It was challenging – there were so many oils to chose from and so many scents to sample in the process. When the morning was over, I had a bottle of my own perfume – a special, spicy fragrance.

Part of the challenge of making my own fragrance was choosing the premixed base to begin with. The images they evoked for me when I sniffed them were varied and surprising. One base reminded me of old bureau drawers. It wasn’t musty but it had that “furniture that has been in the family forever” scent. Another one made me think of hummingbirds. This was a light sugary citrus smell, and I could just imagine birds flittering around in response to it.

My final product, the one I bottled and brought home, included cranberry. Did I chose that scent because it is the state berry of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and very familiar to me? Do we respond more strongly to fragrances that relate to where we live or where we grow up?

As I reflected on my experience, it occurred to me that three of the fragrances I had played with that morning – rose, almond, and cinnamon – are smells that I associate with Passover. I joke that I won’t buy Passover foods until after Purim, but it seems that once Purim has come and gone I also begin to think of Passover scents. The rose reminded me of the rosewater in the pistachio macaroons I make each year. The almond carried the memory of almond macaroons and the cinnamon reminded me of the charoset.

And then I began to wonder – I know what Passover smells like, but what is the smell of freedom? Is it the combination of scents associated with the places we vacation – pine trees and woodsmoke for skiers; salt water and sunscreen for those of us who go to the beach? Is it the smell of fresh laundry or a clean room? Is it a scent that makes us feel safe, secure, and protected? What does freedom smell like?

The Israelites wandering in the desert complained that they missed the food of Egypt. Studies show that our sense of smell is an intrinsic part of how we taste food. Did the Israelites also miss the scents of Egypt? The Torah and Midrash speak of the taste of the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert. We learn that its taste changed according to the desires of the eater but the only reference to the smell is that the leftover manna stank. Perhaps for the Israelites who left Egypt the smell of freedom was the smell of rotted manna. For them freedom’s smell did not evoke positive memories. Maybe the 40 years of wandering were necessary not just for  a new generation that did not experience slavery but for a generation for whom freedom had a positive scent.

May we all be blessed this Passover with scents that evoke happy memories, create connections to our past, and remind us of the gift of freedom.


(With thanks to John and Cyndi Berglund and Tijon – for a fantastic vacation experience and for giving me so much to think about.)


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min, CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her at:

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About wallcough

Trying to find beauty and joy in the world around me . I am many things, among them a quilter, a knitter, and an incessant reader. There is not enough time for them all, so I jump in between them as the mood hits me. Professionally - a rabbi; a hospice chaplain.

3 thoughts on “Freedom’s Smell

  1. Interesting! A new aspect of Pesach I have never thought about. Smell and memory are tied together, and since memory is a central motif in Judaism in general, and on Pesach specifically- it is very relevant.
    Thank you!!

  2. Pingback: Positive and negative smelling association »

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