“Pass the Salt, Please!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, we learn of the obligation of placing salt on all sacrificial offerings, including all animal, wheat and wine offerings.

Many reasons are suggested for the use of salt on the altar.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), citing the Midrash, suggests that at the time of creation, when G-d removed the waters of the earth from the heavenly waters, He made a covenant with the waters that even though they were removed from the heavenly sphere, they would still gain much recognition on earth. He did this by assuring them that the salt, which comes from the ocean, would be placed on the altar. The Al-mighty also promised that on Sukkot, during the libation ceremony, water would be poured directly on the altar, and the entire festival would be devoted to celebrating water.

Many of the classical commentators offer other interesting and edifying reasons.  Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) maintains that salt, which absorbs liquids, was used extensively on the altar in order to remove blood from the offerings. This was done because the pagan ritual sacrifices celebrated blood and did not allow the use of salt, in order to retain every drop of blood for their deity.

The Arbarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator), Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher, 1263-1340, Biblical commentator of the Golden Age of Spain), and the Sefer Hachinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) regard salt as a seasoning, maintaining that it would be improper to offer anything upon the altar without first making it complete by seasoning it, so that it would be acceptable.

The Da’at Zekeinim (a collection of comments on the Pentateuch by the Tosafists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) sees salt as a preservative, forever preserving the sacrificial ritual in order to secure forgiveness from G-d. The Kli Yakar (R’ Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz, c.1550-1619, Rosh Yeshiva of Lemberg and Rabbi of Prague, author of a popular bible commentary) sees salt as embodying two opposing concepts. While salt is extracted from cool water, it also possesses properties that enhance the ability of objects to burn. These two qualities remind us of two qualities of G-d: the gentle quality of mercy and the stark harshness of justice. Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, in his commentary on Leviticus, notes that in ancient times, agreements were sealed with a formal meal. Sharing salt at a meal was the symbol of concluding an agreement. This is why the Bible describes this as a “covenant” of salt.

In order to maintain the memory of the ancient practice of placing salt on the altar, there is a widespread custom of having salt at our meals. Since the table today represents the altar of old, we make certain to use salt at the meal. After reciting the blessing over the bread, the bread is dipped in, or sprinkled with, salt before it is eaten.

Rabbi Abraham Chill, in his wonderful book, “The Minhagim,” explains the customary use of salt. 1. Salt reminds us of the sin offerings that were offered on the Temple altar. The Hebrew word “m’chal,” forgive, is composed of the same letters as “melach,” salt. 2. Salt reveals the wonderful way in which G-d created the world. The fact that salt can change its state and still be returned to its original state after being dissolved in water, was seen by the ancient rabbis as proof of the wisdom of G-d, the Creator. 3. Salt is a common and inexpensive ingredient. Those who live in times of abundance should remember that life is sometimes austere, and that food is a gift of G-d. 4. Salt and bread go together because the Hebrew letters comprising salt, “melach,” and bread, “lechem,” are the same. 5. Two opposite forces, water and fire, are at work in the manufacture of salt, when it is crystalized from water boiled at high temperatures. Water irrigates the wheat fields while the fire of the sun dries and ripens the crops. It’s when both of these processes join at G-d’s command that we are able to benefit from the fruit of the earth. 6. The Midrash tells us that Lot’s wife was punished and converted into a mound of salt because she was upset that her husband had invited guests into the home. Thus, salt serves to heighten our sensitivity toward the poor, who should be welcome guests at our tables.

Salt is also a substance that never spoils. It is eternal. It is used to remind us, and to remind G-d, of the eternal covenant that G-d made with the Jewish people, and our promise to be loyal to G-d.

It is always wondrous to see how rich in symbolism are the Jewish customs found in our glorious tradition.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month, Nissan, is read from Exodus 12:1-20. This Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which marks the first day of the month of redemption.