Based on a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Talmud declares that a Jew should recite 100 blessings a day to adhere to God’s ways and to serve Him.
Fortunately, reciting the blessings for prayer and meals, each three times a day, easily achieves the required number. But it becomes a challenge if meals are not part of the daily regimen, as on Yom Kippur.
During the Yom Kippur fast, when all food and drink is forbidden for slightly more than 24 hours, some turn to making a blessing before smelling a fragrant spice, fruit or herbs to make it to 100.
Others, like Avie Yudin, might even inhale a pinch of powdered —and sometimes flavored — tobacco known as snuff.
“Another reason why we do it,” said Yudin, 57, and a member of Congregation Ohr Simcha, “is there are certain points during the day where you get tired and lethargic. That’s the last thing I want to [feel] on Yom Kippur. … This helps me wake up a bit. Believe me, I’d like to be able to smell coffee [instead] and feel this way.”
Yudin said the smell of snuff also invokes memories of his grandfather.
“Apparently he used to do that on Shabbos, yom tov or every day, so he had the little box where he would keep it,” said Yudin, who still has the snuffbox.
When Yudin was a boy, his father would offer smelling salts around the synagogue, but he didn’t care for it much.
“But as I got older, someone passed around snuff, and I loved it,” he said, “because it reminded me of my grandfather and it woke me up.”
A few years ago Yudin’s good friend, Dr. Sol Langermann, returned from Israel with a gift of snuff “because he knew I liked it on Yom Kippur, and now that’s what I take out every year and use.”
Yudin’s snuff has a powdery texture, mixed with a menthol scent.
It’s called shmek tabak in Yiddish, he said, a reference to the “pinch of tobacco” traditionally taken between one’s thumb and index finger.
“You put [the pinch] up by your nostril, and breathe in,” he said. “I probably do it three or four or five times.”
Yudin shares the snuff with fellow congregants, he added, and “most people refuse it, because they don’t know what the hell it is, and some people smile when I pass it around probably thinking, ‘Oh, the old guys used to take it.’
Binyamin Ziman, a maintenance technician at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, prefers to inhale aromas of spices and other pleasant smelling things. He’s practiced this for years and it’s especially important for him on Yom Kippur because when a “person is fasting, you can’t eat but you can smell and you can make a brachah while taking in the smell. That in itself, it’s a merit to make extra brachahs on a day like that.”
Ziman, a member of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation, leaves the spice bottle at his synagogue for use during the holy days and says smelling the fragrances helps him.
“It’s not like taking a bite out of a candy bar, but it gives you a sense of refreshment,” he explained, likening the practice to using mouthwash instead of a toothbrush; like a quick fix.
Abba David Poliakoff, 62, also a member of BJSZ, says he appreciates the lift and added focus that snuff can provide. He remembers older European Jews at his synagogue that came with a snuffbox.
“And every once in a while, someone comes to shul with snuff. … If somebody there has it I love to try it. I love to try anything,” said Poliakoff. “It’s the novelty of doing it. … It kind of blows your mind literally.”
Taking a pinch of snuff effectively relieves sinus congestion, but it’s typically accompanied with quite a few sneezes too, he added.
“I find that on Yom Kippur there is just so much to look at and understand that I also find myself short on time of doing what I have to do,” said Poliakoff, who is partner and chairman of securities law practice group Gordon Feinblatt LLC. “My key to everything is to be as involved and focused as much as possible, and when one does that, there’s very little time to think about food.” A pinch of snuff seems to help.
Yudin said there are other methods people use to stay awake, remain focused and avoid headaches, like caffeine suppositories. But Yudin sticks to snuff for its effectiveness and nostalgia.
There is one drawback, he said. “It’s pretty disgusting when you blow your nose.”