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Adapted from a shiur by Dayan Yosef Greenwald
May 27, 2020
One of the lesser symptoms experienced by many COVID-19 patients, lo aleinu, is the loss of taste and smell. Would a person so inflicted be required to recite a bracha rishonah upon eating if he cannot detect the taste of the food? May he recite the bracha of borei minei vesamim if he cannot smell the spices?
The Gemara (Berachos 35a) famously states that sevara (logic) dictates that it is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without reciting a bracha. Rashi explains that it is logical that one must express gratitude to Hashem upon receiving hana’ah (benefit) from eating. One might argue that if a person does not derive any pleasure from the act of eating because he doesn’t experience taste, he should not recite a bracha. But this is clearly not the case, as all agree that anyone who eats food must recite a bracha, whether he enjoys it or not. A person with an aversion to spinach who eats it for health reasons still recites the bracha. If so, we must explain what bracha-compelling hana’ah one derives from an eating experience devoid of pleasure.
The Gemara (Chulin 103b) says that food offers two types of hana’ah: hana’as garon, the benefit experienced in the mouth (taste), and hana’as meiayim, the benefit experienced in the stomach (satiety). Which of these two benefits is the cause of the obligation to recite a bracha rishonah on food?
The Eglei Tal (Tochen 62) writes that it’s clear that hana’as meiayim creates the obligation. He adduces support for this from the fact that although the Gemara (Berachos 35b) says that one who drinks olive oil does not recite a bracha, the Rambam (Hilchos Brachos 8:2) states that he is only exempted from ha’eitz but would still recite shehakol. The reason, presumably, is that he has benefited in that he is full, i.e., hana’as meiayim.
Another point in support of bracha rishonah being about hana’as meiayim is the fact that the Gemara earlier suggested deriving the obligation of bracha rishonah from birkas hamazon, where the obligation clearly hinges on satiation.
But this creates a problem. If hana’as meiayim is determinative, why do spoiled foods and bad-tasting foods not require a bracha? Is there not still some hana’as meiayim?
We must perforce qualify that the obligation does not stem solely from hana’as meiayim, but rather from hana’as meiayim that results from a ma’asei achilah, a normal act of eating. But if the food is inherently unpleasant to humans, like drinking olive oil, that is a lesser form of ma’asei achilah that would not, according to many opinions, require the regular specialized bracha, only the general shehakol. Swallowing medicine or an extremely bitter food would not warrant any bracha rishonah, because that is not considered a ma’asei achilah at all.
Conversely, one who adds an excessive amount of salt to his food such that he doesn’t taste the food itself, would still recite a bracha, because this is considered a ma’asei achilah; the food is fine, he’s just preventing himself from enjoying its taste.
This explains why most poskim say that intravenous feeding of a patient on Yom Kippur would not violate the prohibition of achilah, since the prohibition involves only an act that is classified as a ma’asei achilah, which IV feeding is not.
Thus it is clear that people who have lost their sense of taste must still recite a bracha when eating, because it is still a ma’asei achilah and hana’as meiayim is still received.
With regard to borei minei vesamim, though, it seems clear that one cannot make a bracha on a smell he cannot sense. For this reason, such a person should not recite borei minei vesamim on behalf of his family during havdalah on motza’ei Shabbos, as he cannot satisfy others’ obligations when he cannot fulfill his own. Rather, another household member should recite it. (See Shulchan Aruch O.C. 297:5 and Mishnah Berurah there.)
Strangely, the Gemara (Berachos 43b) offers a separate source for the requirement of brachos on fragrances. The Tzlach and R’ Elazar Moshe Horowitz ask: Given that the Gemara already sourced the prohibition to derive benefit from this world without a bracha, wouldn’t that encompass smells, too?
They answer that the Gemara (Pesachim 26a) says that me’ilah (misappropriation of items consecrated to the Bais Hamikdash) by means of hearing, seeing, or smelling is not included in the prohibition. Although people might pay a lot of money to see a great painting or hear a great singer, me’ilah doesn’t enjoin hana’ah from intangibles; one must actually take and benefit from an object in order to violate me’ilah. Similarly, the prohibition to benefit from this world without reciting a bracha applies only to taking a physical object and benefiting from it, and smelling an item is not “taking” it from Hashem.
May we merit to experience the bracha of the pasuk, “Taste and see that Hashem is good (Tehillim 34:9).”