Leviticus 1:9 – A Pleasing Aroma

Many times the Torah writes that an offering burning on the altar is a “sweet smell” or “pleasing aroma” to God. This article explains this puzzling phrase.

The Book of Leviticus (Hebrew: Sefer Vayikra) begins with instructions of how to bring various offerings.

The instructions begin with the burnt or elevation offering (Hebrew: korban olah).

Presenting an Offering

It stands to reason that a person who brings an offering will want God to accept it. The acceptance of the offering depends on doing the right things.

The Torah gives details about how to slaughter the animal, what to do with the blood, and how to prepare the parts for burning on the altar.

These procedures are stated in various verses of the Torah. In other words, we don’t read about every step in relation to every offering.

Also, some of these steps may only be performed by a priest. Other steps may be performed by any person.

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Leviticus 1:9 Explained

Leviticus 1:3-9 teaches how to bring cattle as a burnt offering. The last verse includes 3 ideas:

  • Which parts require washing
  • Burning the offering
  • God’s acceptance of the offering

Let’s look closely at the verse.

Leviticus 1

9. But its innards and its feet shall he wash with water; and the priest shall cause all to ascend in smoke on the altar, a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

its innards – its intestines [Daat Mikra]. Rabbi Steinsaltz understands the commandment more broadly to mean the all of the inner parts including the stomach and the intestines.

its feet – the leg below the knee [Daat Mikra].

its innards and its feet – Because these are brought on the “king’s table” (the Outer Altar) they require washing with water. [Chizkuni]

These parts can have clinging to them foreign matter that is not suitable to be brought on the altar.

wash with water – According to Ibn Ezra, this can be done only by a priest or a Levite. Daat Mikra disagrees and states that any Jew can wash these parts.

There is no minimum amount of water required for this washing. [Daat Mikra]

shall cause all to ascend in smoke – This phrase is the translation of the Hebrew word “hiktir” (root is kuf-tet-reish). This word can mean both burning an offering or burning incense.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the offering is to be completely burnt on the fire. The offering is not to be roasted as if it is being prepared to be eaten. It is not even permitted to roast the offering and then to burn it.

a burnt offering – The priest should place the offering on the fire with the intention that this is a burnt offering [Rashi]. (From these verses the Sages learn that the wrong intention invalidates an offering. That topic is beyond the scope of this article.)

A Pleasing Aroma – The Translation

Leviticus 1:9 ends with the phrase “a pleasing aroma.” This is the translation of the Hebrew words “reiach nichoach.”

The phrase reiach nichoach appears about 40 times in the Bible, mostly in relation to offerings.

Most English translations use one of these phrases:

  • pleasing aroma
  • refreshing fragrance
  • soothing aroma
  • sweet odor
  • sweet savor
  • sweet smell

These translations are all very similar with the idea that the smell of the burnt offering is pleasant or sweet to God.

The Problem

The big problem with these translations of “reiach nichoach” is the implication that God has a sense of smell similar to humans.

Even though the Torah often mentions God’s hand, arm, or other parts of the anatomy, Judaism rejects the idea of God having any bodily form.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains why the Torah implies that God has some familiar body parts.

Aryeh Kaplan – Handbook of Jewish Thought

2:23 In many places, the Torah speaks of God as though He had a human body, using anthropomorphisms such as, “the hand of God” (Exodus 9:15), and “the eyes of God” (Deuteronomy 11:12). In doing so, the Torah is in no way asserting that God has a body, shape, or form. Rather, it borrows terms from God’s creatures allegorically to express His relation to His creation.

Over 1000 years earlier Rav Saadia Gaon in HaEmunot v’HaDayot made a similar point. In section 2:10 he discusses several anthropomorphisms and explains their deeper meaning.

He writes, “by eye, again, they meant solicitude … by hand they meant power …”

The Solution – A Better Translation

Here’s what Rav Saadia Gaon writes about the sense of smell when applied to God:

HaEmunot v’HaDayot 2:10

Hence even such a statement as “And the Lord smelled,” the true implication of which is difficult to construe, would have the meaning of “to receive,” …

The phrase “reiach nichoach” appears for the first time after the Flood when Noach brings burnt offerings.

Genesis 8

20. And Noach built an altar to the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
21. And the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma; and the Lord said in his heart, …

An early translation of the Torah is the Aramaic translation attributed to Onkelos.

Onkelos did not want any pagans who might read his translation to conclude that God has a physical form. Therefore, he carefully translated all anthropomorphisms in a way that reveals their deeper meaning.

Here’s how he translates the relevant section of Genesis 8:21:

Onkelos Genesis

8:21 And the Lord received with approval his offering; …

He has a similar translation of our verse:

Onkelos Leviticus

1:9 … an offering to be received with acceptance before the Lord.

Onkelos and Rav Saadia Gaon are in agreement that “reiach nichoach” is the concept of God receiving and accepting something.

Here is how two commentators apply that idea in Leviticus 1:9:

Rashi: “reiach nichoach” means one that causes satisfaction to Me by the knowledge that I gave commands and that My will was executed [Rabbi A.M. Silbermann translation].

Hirsch: the phrase means “to give spiritual satisfaction. This [phrase] disproves the erroneous conception that an offering is intended to provide God with tangible, sensory pleasure. Rather, one who seeks closeness to God by means of an offering undertakes to fulfill the Divine Will and so directs toward God the aspiration to give spiritual satisfaction.”

Here is how the Hirsch Chumash applies this idea in the translation of our verse:

Leviticus 1 – Hirsch Chumash

9. He shall wash its intestines and its feet in water, and the priest shall turn all of it into smoke upon the altar as an ascent offering, an offering made by fire as an expression of compliance, to God.

Granted, this translation is less poetic, but instead it captures the deeper meaning of the verse.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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