Salt Of The Earth
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Special To The Jewish WeekCandlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:53 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26; Exodus 12:1-20;
Havdalah: 7:53 p.m.
Today people break bread together to show camaraderie; in olden days people used to share salt as a sign of friendship. In addition to its tastiness salt is ubiquitously found on dinner tables due to its time-honored association with human connection. The Torah repeatedly makes reference to salt as a sign of a pact, and calls treaties “covenants of salt.” This symbolism is most plausibly traceable to salt’s efficacy as a preservative.
In parshat Vayikra we are told, “On all of your sacrifices offer salt “[Leviticus 2:13]. Salt serves to indicate that the korban — sacrificial offering — is a genuine effort to come close to God, as karov, meaning close, is the root word for korban, generally translated as sacrifice. Salt serves to highlight the covenantal aspect of an offering, as that verse continues, “Do not hold back the salt of your God’s covenant from upon your meal offering.”
The Sefer HaChinuch provides two reasons for why every sacrifice was salted. On an esoteric level just as the salt preserves the sacrifice, we hope our sincere offering to God will preserve us in healthy, good lives. On a more practical level, almost everything tastes better with salt. We flavor our offering in order to feel good about it, as we are more likely to be uplifted by a korban that we feel we have prepared in the best way possible.
On a related note, Jewish law teaches that we should always bring salt to our table and dip bread in salt before eating it. The general explanation given for this is that our table is like an altar; just as sacrifices always included salt, our meals are to be similarly meaningful and thus include salt as well. On a more down to earth level, having just said a blessing on the bread we salt it to make sure we enjoy it as we eat it with gratitude to God. This is similar to the Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that the salt is simply to make the sacrifice tasty.
Rashi cites a Midrash that explains that salt is associated with an ancient covenant, and thus continues to be metaphorical for pacts of loyalty. Legend has it that salt is part of a covenant dating back to the creation of the world. At the beginning of time, water was everywhere. Then God split the waters, sending some above and some below. The waters that were assigned to earth were promised that they would be offered up to God regularly in sacrifices in the form of salt.
Salt serves as a symbol at both the start and end of our meals. At the beginning, it represents our human connections and sharing. At the end of our meals we wash our hands again, a washing known as Mayim Achronim. Tradition has it that we wash the Sodomite salt off of our hands, as salt is also with the destruction of Sodom due to their lack of kindness. This means that when we conclude a communal meal we commit to staying in touch with others and to washing away any trace of the selfishness and cruelty epitomized by the citizens of Sodom. We wash the Sodomite salt off our hands after our meal, as our meal, like an offering, should be an event infused with kindness. In this light, a rabbinic opinion suggests that ritual washing before meals is optional while washing after meals is obligatory.
Salt can burn and destroy. The Netziv says that we use salt to flavor our sacrifices to illustrate that something can be bad in one context and yet be constructive within the right setting, in the proper proportions. Though salt is bitter on its own it can taste fine when mixed with food. It promotes the idea that what seems to be negative can enable the existence of the good.
The Kli Yakar says that many who turn away from God point to contradictions that lead to disillusionment. Salt is included in the korban precisely because it contains a contradiction, it preserves and destroys. It represents din (justice), which coexists within God together with rachamim (mercy). It is for this reason that Elokim, God’s name that reflects His attribute of justice, is introduced in reference to salt, while Hashem, the name connected to His mercy, is used for the other elements of a sacrifice.
The need for salt on sacrifices can be taken as a metaphorical lesson regarding our prayers, which are like sacrifices before God. Our prayers should include genuine (salty) tears. We are told that, even in dark times of exile, “the gates of tears are never locked.” Just as salt can be destructive or constructive, we must remember that crying can be double-edged: manipulative tears can be a terrible thing; words of words of hope and prayer filled with genuine tears can lead to redemption on an individual and global scale.
May we be blessed to learn the many complex lessons of seemingly simple salt. May the words of our prayers, along with the salt of our tears hasten our redemption. God knows we need it.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School, where he teaches Jewish studies and English. He lectures on humor, performs stand-up, and is the author of “In The Field,” a collection of haiku.