Vayikra: It's all about the salt

Why the focus on salt being a solemn covenant? 

Leonard Grunstein

Judaism Salt cave
Salt cave
INN:BG

The Bible in this week’s Torah reading of Parshat Vayikra emphasizes the importance of salt in the sacrificial service. It enjoins us not to withhold the salt; it’s a covenant with G-d (brit melach). The requirement is most intriguing, because, after all, G-d doesn’t eat and, in any event, as Maimonides points out, there are other condiments that may be even more satisfying to the palate. Moreover, why the focus on salt being a solemn covenant? 

This is not the only time salt is referred to this way. There’s the reference to the everlasting covenant of salt as it relates to the sacred gifts due to the Kohanim. The Talmud explains the reference is meant to convey that just like the covenant of salt is unbreakable, so too are the gifts due to the Kohanim eternal. However, that just begs the question of why is the covenant of salt eternal? What is it about the salt?

There is also the reference in Chronicles to the Davidic dynasty being forever, a covenant of salt. The Malbim explains that just like salt is not ever lost and continues to exist, the Davidic dynasty will not be extinguished even if not all the descendants are worthy. The Ralbag focuses on the preservative quality of salt to explain the reference in the verse. 

Rashi, though, adds another dimension to the definition of the covenant of salt, beyond just the existential quality. He ascribes faith to the covenant of salt. The Talmud expresses this concept more broadly as awe of G-d being the preservative that assures the eternal life of the soul in the world to come. This may help provide context to the Chinuch’s explanation that the association of salt with the sacrificial service hints at a deeper meaning. He notes that salt preserves everything and saves it from loss. He explains so too is the sacrificial service a device to save the person from loss and protect the soul so that it is preserved eternal. It is a wonderful sentiment; but how does it work in practice? 

Resh Lakish, in the Talmud, provides a cogent analysis of the practical meaning of the covenant of salt. He compares it to the covenant of suffering. He explains just as salt seasons the meat and makes it edible so too suffering cleanses a person’s transgressions, purifying the person for a more sublime existence. In line with the foregoing, the Pele Yoetz counsels some suffering is necessary because sitting in peace for an entire life is not curative of sins and everyone sins. 

Res Lakish, however, does offer an alternative to actual punishment. He posits that remorse is more effective than an externally imposed penance and its effect is more powerful than receiving one hundred lashes. It is suggested that this is symbolized by putting salt on a sacrifice. We are metaphorically putting salt on our wounds, through the introspective process of acknowledging the wrongs we did that necessitated bringing the atonement. The root of the Hebrew word ‘Korban’ is ‘Karav’, meaning to get close. We, thus, get close to G-d by recognizing our personal failings and the process preserves us.

There is another quality associated with salt, which focuses on how we relate to others. The Kli Yakar notes salt appears like just a throwaway, because it is not typically consumed on its own. The benefit derived from salt is intangible, through its use on other things. He compares it to charity. There is no tangible benefit to the grantor in giving it away; but the intangible benefit is priceless. The Talmudnotes that charity is a metaphor for salt. Just like salt is a preservative for meat so too is giving of charity a preservative for money. Rashi expresses it more pithily as, whoever wants to salt away money, give charity. It is the giving away of money as charity that preserves wealth. 

Whether it is seeing the salt in ourselves and feeling remorse or distributing salt to others in the form of charity, it is a covenant of salt that is eternal and its intangible benefit preserves us. Those who observe the covenant might rightly be called the salt of the earth, a term of endearment and high praise, when I was growing up. 

Today, we no longer have the Temple and sacrifices to offer for atonement. Instead, as Avot D’Rabbi Natan reports Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to Rabbi Yehoshua, we have Gemillat Chesed, which serves the same purpose. The Talmud is even more emphatic in its praise of acts of charity, which it equates to being greater than all of the sacrifices. The Midrash explains that it atones not only for inadvertent sins like one of the sacrifices, but even intentional ones. It is also an effective means of obtaining atonement both when the Temple existed and thereafter, including in present times. It also is good for the person in this world, as well as, the world to come. 

The Talmud also expresses this concept in visual terms. It notes that so long as the Temple stood, the sacrificial Altar facilitated atonement for the Jewish people. Now, a person’s dining table has taken the place of the altar in the Temple and it provides atonement through the Mitzvah of feeding the poor or guests. We can fulfill this fundamental aspect of our Jewish tradition by figuratively spreading the salt, by making sure everyone is fed and adequately provisioned to observe The Passover Seder and holidays, in their homes.

Spread the good cheer and joyful experience of Passover and the Seder, even if we have to share it remotely this year.

May we all merit the ultimate redemption. 


 



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