Vayikra: Please don't pass (on) the salt.

Why do we sprinkle salt on the challah when we say motzi?

According to this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the first in the book of Torah by the same name (in English, Leviticus), no meal offering could be brought to G-d without salt. (Lev. 2:13). 

Why salt?  Few substances have more varied practical uses and symbolic meanings.  We must have salt to live.  It adds taste to food, preserves it, has been used as money (from whence the expression, “not worth his salt”), acts as a cleanser, and as a purifying agent (to draw blood out of meat, for example).  

Salt has medicinal qualifies.  Our sages taught:

Eat salt after every food and drink water after every beverage and you will come to no harm.  One who has eaten any kind of food without taking salt after it or drunk any kind of beverage without taking water after it is liable to be troubled with bad odor in the mouth during the day and with croup during the night. (Sefer Ha-Aggadah, 597:237).  

The world can live without wine, but the world cannot live without water.  The world can live without pepper, but the world cannot live without salt.  (P. Hor 3:6 48c.)  

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, the table at which we eat has symbolically replaced the altar.  The salt we ceremonially sprinkle on bread thus symbolizes the salt that was formerly brought with the sacrifices.  

But as with many Jewish customs, there are deeper explanations.  Rashi explains that G-d’s covenant during the six days of creation was made with salt.  The waters, which had been forced to leave dry land, were promised that they could be offered on the altar in the form of salt.  

Nahmanides suggested that sacrifices made without salt were bland, and therefore disrespectful to G-d.  They could be regarded as scornful offerings, or as the prophet Malachi put it: “Just offer it [defiled food] to our governor: Will he accept you?  Will he show you favor?” (1:8). 

But salt also has destructive power, as at Deuteronomy 29:22, “all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing.”  Nahmanides therefore suggested:

Salt thus partakes of the qualities of both of water and of fire—combining, as it were, the divine attributes of mercy and of justice.  With this combination too “It shall come to you: The former monarchy shall return” (Micah 4:8)—the kingship of the Lord.  For just as saltiness gives flavor to all foods, is an essential nutrient, and at the same time has destructive power, so too the covenant both maintains the world and has the power to destroy it.  The verses we have quoted from Numbers [18:19] and 2 Chronicles [13:5] imply that the covenants with David and with the priesthood are likewise “salt” for the world, having similar power to maintain and to destroy.”  Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus, 17

Salt was the medium by which the Divine Covenant was confirmed!

So, when we sprinkle salt on the challah, we are doing much more than adding a bit of taste and adhering to an ancient custom.  We are connecting with our ancient traditions, the lives of our people, and our holy scripture.  We are respecting both G-d and our sages, and affirming our covenant with the Divine.  

All this richness, history, and meaning in each tiny white grain on our tables.  

Don’t "pass" on the salt and all that it means! 

Shabbat shalom.    

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  • Vayikra: Please don't pass (on) the salt.



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