(Photo/pxhere.com CC0)
(Photo/pxhere.com CC0)

Take this week’s Torah portion with a literal grain of salt


Leviticus 1:1–5:26

Isaiah 43:21–44:23

The world is one part wilderness, one part settled land, and one part sea. Said the sea to God: “Master of the Universe! The Torah will be given in the wilderness; the Holy Temple will be built on settled land; and what about me?” Said God: “The people of Israel will offer your salt upon the Altar.”Yalkut HaReuveni

As Leviticus begins, we meet the elaborate rules and procedures of the ancient Temple, and there find this command: “You shall salt your every meal offering with salt; you may not discontinue the salt of your God’s covenant upon your meal offering — on your every offering shall you offer salt” (Lev. 2:13).

That the word melach (salt) appears four times in one verse suggests that there could be no ambiguity about this practice. Salt was an essential ingredient in the recipe book of the Beit HaMikdash (holy temple).

With the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Judaism evolved to consider the dining table a suitable alternative to the once-central altar. The Leviticus commandment is thus the reason for why many Jews still salt their challah before the hamotzi blessing as they welcome Shabbat, and why salt is often present on any table where food is shared.

Why salt?

By most reckonings, salt is undoubtedly positive. It adds flavor to foods, is a remarkably effective preservative, plays a major role in the kashering of meat and has numerous curative properties (such as gargling with salt water or soaking in a salt bath). Its protective qualities are well known (after salt is spilled accidentally, some people toss a few grains over their shoulder to ward off evil), and describing anyone as “the salt of the earth” is a compliment denoting goodness, loyalty and lack of pretense.

A touch of trivia: The Romans called this spice sal, and it’s from them that we get the word “salary.” Roman soldiers were given a salarium (salt money) with which to buy salt, and may have even been paid at times in salt itself. The saying that someone is or isn’t “worth their salt” comes from that practice as well.

Salt is a ubiquitous symbol of hospitality and welcome. It is often given with wine and bread to people moving to a new home, with the hope that they will receive many guests.

One theory for why Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt when looking back on her ruined home (Genesis 19:26) is that she failed to show her guests proper hospitality (a primary theme of that tragic episode) by laying out sufficient food, drink and salt. An Arabic expression, “there is salt between us,” tethers a host and his guest in an unbreakable bond once they have shared a meal with salt.

A Middle Eastern tradition known as a Salt Covenant involved two parties meeting to establish a pact, with each bringing a bag of prized salt (an Arabic word for treaty or contract is in fact the same word as salt). The parties would co-mingle their grains in one vessel, declaring “may this bond last until these grains of salt can be separated and returned to their original owner.” Some modern weddings still feature a version of this, where the marrying couple mixes colored salt in a keepsake holder to symbolize their union.

And so, when we read of the Brit Melach (Salt Covenant) between God and the Jewish people, it indicates something enduring, precious and preserved for all time. The rabbis even likened the Torah to salt; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could the Jewish People do without the Torah (Soferim 15:8).

But salt is bitter, often suggesting tears. It can be damaging and corrosive, ruining land and plants, and high-sodium diets are generally unhealthy. Salt must be used wisely, in measured amounts.

Nachmanides suggested that the salt of sacrificial offerings, when performed correctly, was “preserving” Israel’s closeness to God. But when rituals were neglected, destruction and exile were the inevitable result.

A Kabbalistic reading of the “salt with the challah” practice suggests that the bread should always be dipped into the salt, so that the sweetness of the bread dampens down any bitterness that the salt might represent. But it’s also a way to recognize that life contains both bitter and sweet — notably, the word for bread (lechem) and the word for salt (melach) contain exactly the same letters.

This Shabbat we also begin the month of Nisan, and enter a veritable “Season of Bread.” For Passover, we’ll clean out all of the crumbs of the last year, and revert to flat matzah, the bread of potential. We’ll then count the Omer for seven weeks to commemorate the barley harvest, in a time of introspection and growth. Finally, we’ll ascend to Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah and the joy of the wheat harvest, when fully risen loaves were offered — with salt, of course!

May our bread be sweet, with just a dash of spice, and may our offerings be brought, and received, with joy. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].