Can a person who lost their sense of smell still say בורא מיני בשמים at Havdalah? Can they say this berakhah for others as part of the ritual?
Berakhot over smells are like other birkot hanehenin, said in order to thank God before benefitting from the pleasures of this world. On Berakhot 43b, Rav evocatively grounds the obligation to bless before smelling a pleasant smell in the verse כל הנשמה תהלל י-ה, which suggests that even things enjoyed via breath must result in praise for God.
The point of these berakhot is to avoid benefitting from the world without displaying the requisite gratitude to God. Therefore, normally, a berakhah relating to bodily enjoyment may only be made when one is enjoying the food oneself. Therefore, who is not planning on eating food, or who cannot smell, would quite obviously not make the appropriate berakhot for those actions. This is the subject of a short section of the Gemara on Rosh Hashanah 29a-b. A baraita taught by Ahava bdR. Zeira states that 1) One can generally say berakhot for others, even when one no longer has an obligation to say them oneself (such as blowing Shofar for someone else after one has already done so that day, and 2) one cannot say berakhot over wine and bread—which seem to refer to all birkot hanehenin—on behalf of someone else, if one has no personal obligation to say the berakhah at that moment (i.e. one is not eating). A later baraita states this explicitly: One may not sayhamotzi for guests if one is not eating bread with them. One may only do so for the members of one’s family, in order to teach them how to say berakhot. In other words, unless there is an educational agenda at stake, one only makes berakhot over food (and by extension, smell) when one is actually involved in the enjoyment of eating (or smelling).
The situation is somewhat more complicated when these berakhot get wrapped up in mandatory rituals as opposed to simply personal enjoyment. For instance, the berakhah of בורא פרי הגפן is said as part of Kiddush. On the one hand, this blessing is said because one is going to drink from the wine, and thus perhaps cannot be said by someone who has no intention of drinking the wine. On the other hand, it is folded in to an obligatory ritual and, therefore, perhaps one could say it vicariously on someone else’s behalf just as one can do more generally with mitzvot one has already fulfilled. Back in Rosh Hashanah, Rava asks this very question with regard to the hamotzi over matzah at the Seder, and the wine drunk at Kiddush on Friday night. The Gemara resolves the question by citing a story of R. Ashi, who reports that when he was at R. Pappi’s house, R. Pappi would make Kiddush for himself and those assembled and then would make a second Kiddush for workers coming in late from the fields. While the story itself might only be permitting the idea of saying Kiddush twice for different audiences, the sugya assumes R. Pappi was not obligated to say בורא פרי הגפן the second time—and perhaps did not even drink the wine—and yet he said this berakhah. This establishes the principle that a person may say birkot hanehenin when they are folded into a larger, obligatory ritual framework, even if the person will not actually enjoy the food or drink at that moment.
What counts as an obligatory framework? Well, Kiddush and matzah quite obviously count. But what abouthamotzi on Friday night? A Tosafistic view (cited in the collection of Tosafot in Mordechai Pesahim ch. 10) takes for granted that this hamotzi is not obligatory in the same way as Kiddush. And this is the holding of the Shulhan Arukh. [Indeed, this berakhah is not connected into any other berakhot of mitzvah, the way both Kiddush and matzah are.]
Where does besamim in havdalah fit into this equation? On the one hand, besamim is already mentioned inMishnah Berakhot 8:5 and Tosefta Berakhot 5:30 as a core part of the havdalah ritual, the only argument relating to its placement. On the other hand, Rav states on Berakhot 53b that one need not make a great effort to find a candle for havdalah and Ra’avad (cited in Rashba there) states that this is all the more so forbesamim, which is merely for personal pleasure. In other words, while besamim may be an ancient part of the havdalah ritual, it is not truly legally significant. It is an aesthetically pleasing addition.
In keeping with this latter line of thinking, R. Efraim (Regensburg, 12th c., cited in Or Zarua II:92 and Mordechai Berakhot #188) ruled that a person who has no sense of smell may not make a berakhah overbesamim even in the conext of havdalah, even if the goal is to fulfill the obligations of others, even members of one’s own household. [He is specifically asked this question by R. Yehudah b. Kalonymos, who had no sense of smell.] Tur (R. Ya’akov b. Asher, Germany/Spain, 13th-14th c.) accepts the notion that a person with no sense of smell should not make this berakhah for himself, but objects to the ban on such a person making a blessing for the members of one’s household. Tur cites the baraita we recorded above: a person can makehamotzi for the members of one’s household without eating bread; why should this be any different? He reports that his father ruled that one may indeed say the berakhah over besamim for בני ביתו even if one does not smell the spices themselves. Orhot Hayyim (R. Aharon Hakohen of Lunel, 13th-14th c.) takes an entirely different approach. He argues that even one who cannot smell spices can/should nonetheless say the berakhah, since the spices still have an effect on one’s head and body, even if the particular aroma cannot be detected. [An even more unusual justification of this sort can be found in R. Yitzhak Tirna’s Sefer Haminhagim: since a person without a sense of smell could be saved from a fire by others smelling smoke, he nonetheless benefits from the sense of smell being present in the world and can thus say the berakhah!] Obviously, such a person would be able to say the blessing for others as well.
Beit Yosef rejects the Tur’s challenge to R. Efraim, saying: the baraita in the Gemara only refers to small children who are still learning how to make berakhot. But the baraita provides no support for the more general permission to fulfill the obligations of others that R. Efraim was arguing against. Nonetheless, he thinks that Tur’s ruling in the name of his father is still justified: despite the blessing over besamim being an aesthetic custom, it is an old one given sanction by Hazal and thus it takes on enough of an obligatory status to allow a person who is not fulfilling an obligation in that moment to perform it on behalf of others.
Shulhan Arukh therefore follows the Tur, allowing a person with no sense of smell to make the berakhah overbesamim on behalf of small children still learning berakhot as well as on behalf others who do not know how to make the blessing themselves. [The question of whether a person not currently obligated can fulfill the obligations of those who know how to do so for themselves is a separate discussion.]
However, many subsequent authorities reject the second point above, restricting one with no sense of smell to making a berakhah over besamim to cases of children learning how to say berakhot. Essentially, they return to the view of R. Efraim. Magen Avraham 297:5 points out that Shulhan Arukh elsewhere follows the Tosafistic view that the hamotzi on Friday night may not be said for others unless one is eating; why would we be more lenient with besamim, which he assumes is even less obligatory? Magen Avraham further argues that it is not even clear that Tur was arguing or anything more than allowing a person with no sense of smell to bless on behalf of his young children. Taz OH 297:8 is explicit that one should follow R. Efraim’s view. Radbaz asserts—like R. Efraim—that besamim is really not a mitzvah at all and rejects Beit Yosef’s attempt to counter this logic. He further states—rejecting the approach of the Sefer Haminhagim above—the one without a sense of smell in no way benefits from smell at all and therefore can in no way say this berakhah for themselves or others who are obligated. R. Akiva Eiger argues that even if it is a mitzvah, a person who truly cannot smell is completely exempt from that mitzvah and there is no way they can fulfill the obligations of others.
Responsa Shevut Ya’akov III:20 (R. Ya’akov Reischer, Poland/Germany, 17th-18th c.) revives Orhot Hayyim. While accepting the critiques of Magen Avraham and Taz, he argues that in fact someone with no sense of smell may appropriately bless over besamim; all we care is that the person can breathe and inhale the fragrance, even if they cannot detect it through smell. He thinks it is responsible to rely on the Beit Yosef in the limited case of making the blessing for others, even if we would not allow it in a case of a person saying it for themselves. Yosif Ometz #17 (R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai) rejects this reasoning forcefully along with Shulhan Arukh’s ruling. But he does permit someone who only occasionally loses her sense of smell to say the berakhah for others even when in a period when she cannot smell, given that the positions of Tur and Orhot Hayyim are sufficient to rely on in this sort of doubtful situation.
The practical conclusion would seem to be that a person who has never had a sense of smell should not say the berakhah of besamim ever. If such a person is making havdalah, someone else should make the berakhah over besamim when getting to that point. Someone who occasionally loses their sense of smell—and perhaps even one who has lost it but who has reason to think s/he will get it back—can rely on Yosif Ometz to make the berakhah of besamim for others who don’t know how, but should otherwise refrain from doing so. In a circumstance that would cause great embarrassment or shame, Orhot Hayyim, Sefer Haminhagim and Shevut Ya’akov are great enough authorities to rely on to allow such a person to make havdalah.