Why is salt given such a central role in the Temple service?
Table for Five: Vayikra
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt.
– Lev. 2:13
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am
Everything and everyone wishes to rise up. This notion suffuses our tradition and the condition of all of life. Mma’alin b’kodesh v’lo yordin. We elevate in holiness rather than descend. This explains why Hillel’s way of lighting Hanukkah candles from 1 to 8 became the dominant custom According to Rabbi Shabtai ben Joseph, in his work Siftei Hakhamim, this notion explains why salt was required for every sacrifice. When God created the world, and the primordial waters were divided, sweet water rose to become the heavens. Whereas salty waters were dispatched to the nether regions. The salty waters demanded a future ascent. God’s compromise was that when God’s people would create sacred space, no offering would be devoid of salt. The lower regions would rejoin the upper. The lowly, brackish salt would be integral to every sanctified ritual moment.
One need not anthropomorphize salt to find wisdom in this teaching. As Rabbi Shabtai continues, even the birds used in the sacrifices–turtledoves and pigeons–are among the humblest of the winged world. Thus, our sacred spaces are dedicated to the uplifting of all. Of inanimate minerals. Of non-sentient fowl. And by extension, of anyone who approaches any one of our sanctuaries.
The rituals of Leviticus can seem archaic and inaccessible. But the lessons embedded in the sacrificial system must inspire and obligate us today: every ritual space from which we invoke God must be devoted to the raising up of the low, the sanctifying of the rejected, the embracing and loving of the humble.
Yael W. Mashbaum, Middle School Director/Sinai Akiba Academy
In the verse on the table, salt is not only used in the context of sacrificial meat, but is used in the context of covenant. “Salt of your covenant with God.” Why the juxtaposition of salt and brit?
Perhaps the meaning here is that salt preserves and therefore, salt literally preserved the Altar service and our daily relationship with God during Temple times. However, salt also figuratively represents the enduring quality of the Jewish people’s covenant with God. Interestingly, it is mentioned multiple times in this one verse. This is obviously meant to pique our curiosity. Salt can preserve food, and can also saturate and deem food entirely inedible. With such opposing purposes, what is the reason to place it as such a central part of the service in the Beit HaMikdash? Maybe it is a metaphor in more than one way. Salt brings us together. We dip challah in it on Shabbat and we dip vegetables in it on Pesach. It is during our joyous, family-filled gatherings, that we turn to salt. Though it is not sweet, it carries a multi-layered meaning. Just like salt has preserved our covenant with God, may it also preserve our relationships with each other.
Abe Mezrich, Author: Words for a Dazzling Firmament
Because salt preserves, a covenant marked by salt would be a covenant that lasts a very long time. Maybe forever. But the forever of salt isn’t always the forever that you want. Think of the practice, recorded in the Bible, of sowing an enemy’s fields with salt during war. Or think of Lot’s wife. Terror, too – God forbid – is preservable.
So a covenant of salt might be both a blessing and a warning. What lasts, the covenant says – what is eternal and ultimate – is also a source of great danger. What happens if we’re not careful with the danger? In just a few weeks Aaron’s sons will learn the answer. At almost the moment they’re consecrated as priests, they’re engulfed in flame.
I’m thinking of all of this – the service of God, the salt and the fire – in light of a video that made the rounds in the last few weeks. Perhaps you’ve seen it: a minyan of men steeped in prayer in the night in the village they’ve set ablaze.
Here are men on the ancient land uttering ancient words. They are men who have built their lives, at least on the surface, around honoring the covenant. But they’ve learned all the wrong lessons about what the covenant is meant to be. Because yes, to honor the covenant is to keep the flame alive. But it’s also to preserve what is good, the spice and the flavor, while keeping the fire – the furious fire – always at bay.
Mari Chernow, Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel of Hollywood
God does not have a body. And yet, the Torah describes God from time to time as interacting with the world through body parts. We frequently read of God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (ex. Deut 4:34). The original tablets at Sinai are inscribed “by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). Moses dies “by the mouth of God” (Deut. 34:5).
Parashat Vayikra is one of the many texts that refers to sacrificial smoke as a “pleasing odor to Adonai.” Is it possible that God experiences sensory pleasures just as we do? That God loves catching a whiff of fresh baked brownies seconds out of the oven? Or the sight of the last burning red rays of light as the sun sets over the ocean?
The commentators offer several explanations for the requirement that every offering be seasoned with salt. It refers to the sacred commitment forged through a covenant of salt. It harkens back to a promise that God made to the oceans at creation that salt represent them throughout time.
These teachings connect the act of sprinkling salt to our deep and lasting relationship with God. I wonder if the practice might have simpler and more pedestrian roots. Salt is delicious. It is so valuable that it is the root of the word “salary.” Our ancestors surely delighted in their own seasoned foods. Perhaps they simply wanted to share that sensation with their Creator, to insist that every morsel they offered to God was nothing short of…heavenly.
Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation
A covenant was established with salt during the six days of Creation. Hashem assured the ocean’s waters that they would be offered on the altar with the sacrifices in the form of salt.
The Torah acknowledges the sentience of a seemingly inanimate object such as water. This demonstrates the inherent spirituality in all creation. Through the power of the sun which shines upon water, it becomes salt. Salt preserves foods. So too, the sacrifices were connected to the covenant which preserves our nation. Salt endures, reminding us of the permanence of Hashem’s covenant with us.
A covenant is inclusive of all attributes, so water and fire are subsumed by it. It is the nature of water to soak into the earth and make it bring forth and bud but after it is suffused with salt, it destroys the earth and prevents it from growing crops or bearing fruit. Salt seasons all foods and helps to preserve them, but ruins them when they are over-saturated with it.
Salt embodies both the power of creation and destruction, as the covenant is connected to the perpetuation of all existence. By remaining true to the covenant we bring growth, benefit and blessing to the entire world, and ultimately all spiritual realms. Life is always a fine balance.
Hashem doesn’t need sacrifices. Hashem wanted to confer the spiritual benefits, service and atonement we achieve through sacrifices. So too, the Torah and mitzvot are meant to benefit us and give us opportunities to acquire spiritual merits.
With thanks to Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Yael W. Mashbaum, Abe Mezrich, Rabbi Mari Chernow, and Rabbi Natan Halevy
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.