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Judaism: A Grain of Salt - On Temple Offerings

For the start of Vayikra, the book of the Torah that centers on the offerings in the Temple.
Published: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 11:03 PM


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Like many other people I have been advised by my doctor to reduce the amount of salt I take with my food.

The decision of whether to do what the doctor advises has to do with salt as a metaphor. Because my doctor is “the salt of the earth”, I dare not take his advice cum grano salis, “with a grain of salt”. So when I see fellow-diners tipping large quantities of salt onto their food, I have that self-satisfied feeling that tells me I am doing the right thing.

I have the same feeling when I am with chain smokers. They probably can’t or won’t break their addiction, but I feel good that I am able to resist the temptation, but actually smoking never appealed to me and when anyone offered me a cigarette I was easy to say “No thank you”.

Now, after that introduction, you will wonder what started me on salt this week. The answer is the Torah reading, which says in regard to the sanctuary, “You shall flavour every offering with salt” (Lev. 2:13). Salt, especially in Eretz Yisrael, is a plentiful and essential condiment and was known to human beings from a very early period.

The Torah ascribes special status to the salt on the sacrifices by calling it b’rit melach – “the covenant of salt” (a phrase which also appears in Num. 18:19 and II Chron. 13:5). The sages say that just as salt preserves the food, so the people of Israel must preserve the Divine covenant.

The link between salt and the sacrifices could be that the offerings are the symbol that God preserves and maintains His generosity to human beings.

The practice of putting salt on one’s bread is a reminder of the Temple procedure and underlines the tradition that one’s home is mikdash me’at, “a minor sanctuary”, and the meal table is like the altar.

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Rashi emphasises the word adam, a man, at the beginning of the sidra (Lev. 1:2) when the Torah speaks of “any man of you” who offers a sacrifice to God.

“Adam” is not only “a man”; it is the name of the first human being. Says Rashi, “Adam did not offer a sacrifice of anything stolen since everything was his; similarly when you bring an offering to God it must not be something which was stolen”.

There is a verse in Isaiah that probably inspires this comment: Isa. 61:8, which says that God “hates robbery in offerings”. The person who wants to show God how much he loves Him may be tempted to take something which isn’t his and bring it to the sanctuary. What we are being told by Isaiah, Rashi and Jewish tradition as a whole is that your religiosity is no excuse for acting unethically.

A modern example might be a person who acquires assets by questionable means and seeks to whitewash himself by using them for a big donation to the synagogue. Maybe he thinks no-one will ever find out, but he has forgotten that God sees and notes everything... and if God cannot possibly condone the act of dishonesty that lies behind the donation, the putative donor dare not quieten his conscience and imagine that the end justifies the means.