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Whenever I go to a religious home for havdalah, I notice that they use whole cloves for the blessing on the spices (besamim). Is there some special significance to this, or can any spice be used?
As far as I know, there is no special sanctity to whole cloves. The purpose of the besamim is to cheer us up from the loss of our “extra souls” (neshama yetaira) which depart at the conclusion of Shabbat (Rashbam to Talmud Pesachim 102b). Just about any naturally-occurring aromatic object may be used for this.
I suspect that cloves became customary because they retain their aroma for a long time and they were readily available in areas such as northern Europe. Today we take for granted the wide availability of an array of exotic spices which were no doubt virtually unknown to our ancestors in Europe.
There are a few rules to keep in mind in terms of what to use for besamim:
(a) It is best not to use manmade substances for the besamim, as some are of the opinion that a blessing should not be recited on them (V’Zos HaBracha 19:4).
(b) Spices which are not used to produce a good smell but are placed to remove bad odors – such as air fresheners put up in bathrooms – should not be used for besamim. According to many opinions, one does not recite a blessing on them (Shulachan Aruch 217:2 with Bi'ur Halacha). (Most such substances are manmade anyway.)
(c) It is proper to set aside spices especially for besamim (Mishnah Berurah 297:9). And it’s a good idea to keep them in a closed container so they retain their scent.
(d) Some have the custom to take hadasim (myrtle) leaves left from the lulav for the besamim. Since they were used for one mitzvah, they should be taken for another. However, one should be careful that they haven’t dried out to the extent that they no longer give off a good odor (Shulchan Aruch & Rema 297:4).
(e) The Sages instituted slightly different blessings for different types of plants – such as aromatic grasses, wood or fruit. It is best to take standard spices for havdalah to avoid this situation. Even if one does take say, cinnamon bark, he still recites the standard blessing – borei minei besamim – since the Sages wanted to avoid confusion (Mishnah Berurah 297:1).