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The Aroma of Righteousness

Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature

By Deborah A. Green

Publication Year: 2011

In The Aroma of Righteousness, Deborah Green explores images of perfume and incense in late Roman and early Byzantine Jewish literature. Using literary methods to illuminate the rabbinic literature, Green demonstrates the ways in which the rabbis’ reading of biblical texts and their intimate experience with aromatics build and deepen their interpretations. The study uncovers the cultural associations that are evoked by perfume and incense in both the Hebrew Bible and midrashic texts and seeks to understand the cultural, theological, and experiential motivations and impulses that lie behind these interpretations. Green accomplishes this by examining the relationship between the textual traditions of the Hebrew Bible and Midrash, the surviving evidence from the material culture of Palestine in the late Roman and early Byzantine periods, and cultural evidence as described by the rabbis and other Roman authors.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Front Cover

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v

Table of Contents

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p. vii-vii


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p. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xiv

There are those who say that writing a book is like giving birth to a child. It is true that writing sometimes feels like labor pains and the process does change us in unexpected and permanent ways, but now that I have given birth during the writing of a book I can state with confidence that the two events are nothing alike. Most assuredly a book requires more quiet time ...

Note on Style

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p. xv-xv

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Chapter 1. Tracking the Trail of Scent: An Introduction

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pp. 1-18

Rabbi Eliezer’s brothers were once plowing on the plain, while R. Eliezer plowed on the mountain. R. Eliezer’s cow fell and was maimed. It proved fortunate for him that his cow was maimed, because he fled from his brothers and came to the famed R. Yoḥanan ben Zakkai to study. But now R. Eliezer was poor and had nothing to eat, so he ate clods of dirt until his mouth had ...

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Chapter 2. The Aroma of Daily Life: Aromatics in Roman and Rabbinic Culture

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pp. 19-63

In the Talmud Bavli, R. Isaac interprets a prophecy in Isaiah about the women of Jerusalem, who are haughty not only in their demeanor but in their dress as well. These women were said to make a tinkling sound with their feet when they walked. Of that sound, ...

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Chapter 3. Election and the Erotic: Biblical Portrayals of Perfume and Incense

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pp. 64-115

Just as rabbinic experience and cultural familiarity with aroma find their way into rabbinic interpretation, so too do the images and valences of aroma drawn from Scripture. Indeed, it is these images, ideas, and representations that become the primary metaphors of interpretation. For example, in the Song of Songs (the Songs), the lover describes his beloved as a locked ...

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Chapter 4. Spicy Ideologies: Fragrance and Rabbinic Beliefs

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pp. 116-168

The recontextualization of perfume and incense that begins in the prophetic texts is fully realized in the rabbinic interpretative literature. The rabbinic voices pick up the imagery of aroma, laden with all manner of erotic and priestly associations, as they analyze and interpret nearly every verse from the narrative and poetic sections of the Hebrew Bible—particularly the Song of ...

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Chapter 5. Soothing Odors: Death, Suffering, and Sacrifice

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pp. 169-196

When people die, rather than sigh the exhalation of soothing, calm sleep, they gulp and gasp, suck and swallow air as their bodies begin to shut down. Without sedatives or painkillers, death can be a painful, writhing agony—a face contorted, red and splotchy, crying out until it growls or moans for release. At best, death has no smell; at worst, it stinks of a fetid and rotted ...

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Chapter 6. Emphemerality and Fragrance: Desire for Divine Immanence

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pp. 197-207

By its very nature, fragrance is fleeting and elusive. When we smell a pleasant scent and it brings about in us feelings of well-being, the scent itself may be almost imperceptible. It seems to enter us at the fringe of our awareness. Once inhaled and inside us, aroma can either calm or excite, arouse or soothe. Too much of a pleasant odor may repel us, while a mere whiff may ...


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pp. 209-256


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pp. 257-270

Source Index

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pp. 271-274

General Index

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pp. 275-286

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271066233
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271037677
Print-ISBN-10: 0271037679

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Odors in the Bible.
  • Perfumes -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
  • Rabbinical literature -- History and criticism.
  • Bible. Old Testament -- Criticism, interpretation, etc.
  • Jews -- Palestine -- Social life and customs.
  • Judaism -- History -- Post-exilic period, 586 B.C.-210 A.D.
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