Yossi Feintuch

What is ‘’niho’ach’’?

This weekly parashah, Vaikra – Torah’s foundational source on sacrifices – mentions nine times the Hebrew word niho’ach (a refine aromatic scent) to associate such offerings with how God must have felt upon smelling them.

The very first time when the Torah uses this word appears in the narrative on Noah’s animal offering in the aftermath of the flood. Traditional commentary presumes that God was gratified by Noah’s sacrifices. Thus, all future usages of this word, like in this weekly Torah portion, presume that God was pleased with the sacrifices’ odor emitted by burnt flesh of animals in His service, even on a slaughter-site.

Truth is, the Biblical text says nothing about God being pleased or deriving any contentment from Noah’s offerings, whilst merely “smelling” the “niho’ach” scent. That smell, as Bible commentator Robert Alter suggests, would henceforth be associated uniquely with the name ‘’Noah’’; a name that his father Lamech derived from either the word for ‘’consolation’’ (comfort) or ‘’rest’’ (relief).

The apparent offshoot word “niho’ach” that is quite similar to how the name Noah sounds, renders the scent that God ‘’smelled’’ as comforting, or a scent that puts one in a state of restfulness.

Nonetheless, it is hard to see how the smell of charred butchered flesh (innards, skin, and feathers) of God’s handiwork that gracefully survived the deluge would be soothing or comforting to the incorporeal God.  To attribute to Noah’s God a pagan-like contentment from the smell of charcoaled skin or feathers is a very tall order. That should pose a serious challenge to the original meaning of ‘’niho’ach’’.

Spices to dispel the stench

Indeed, when God instructs Moses to add to the sacrificial system ‘’an altar on which to burn incense’’ – an admixture of spices, to be offered twice a day at the time of the communal sacrifices – its goal was to offset the foul smell of singed flesh emanating from the main altar.

In his ‘’The Guide for the Perplexed” (3:45) Maimonides calls that smell ‘’the smell of slaughter-houses, if nothing had been done to counteract it.’’  Hence, the commandment (in Exod. 30:7, 8) to burn incense there twice every day… ‘’in order to give the place and the garments of those who officiated there a pleasant odor… [and] respect.”

Other biblical meanings to ‘’niho’ach’’                      

No wonder, then, why the Bible discloses expressions of divine displeasure with the smell of animal offerings. Thus, when God informs the Israelites: “I will not smell your niho’ach” (as in Leviticus. 26:31), it is an observation about the physical and spiritual aspects of the sacrifice. To begin with, ”I do not smell” says God. Or ”even if I did, it is you who consider such a smell as sweet and pleasant; you, but not I.”  The prophet Amos echoes this very sentiment as he speaks for God: “I hate and loathe your festive offerings, and I will not smell [delightfully the offerings of] your assemblies” (5:21).

Rabbi Yitzhak Hebenshtreit posits in Sefer Kivrot Hatahava — The book of the graves of craving, 1929, Poland): “Fresh animal flesh does not appeal in its scent, let alone make us crave for it; the very opposite is true as it creates in us revulsion and even disgust upon looking at it. Only after it absorbs in cooking scents of various vegetables and herbs that cancel out its original smell, one could crave it, but only when its first smell and look have dissipated, when you cannot notice that it was a dead animal”.


In the summer of 2022 residents of an apartment building in the city of Eilat had been smelling for a few days a strong foul odor that made it almost impossible to breathe. Since the residents associated that odor with a rotting animal cadaver or a human corpse, they called in their despair the local fire squad to break into an apartment which they suspected to be the source of that bad smell. When the first responders did so they discovered on the kitchen table a plate topped with steaks and meats left over by the resident who went on a vacation for a few days…

For sure, that smell was not ‘’niho’ach’’, a word that we presume to be pleasing, especially to God, though ‘’it ain’t necessarily so’’…

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.