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Vayikra. A Covenant of Salt

Salt is traditionally placed alongside the bread at our Shabbat table (Shulhan Arukh. Orah Hayim 167:5). The source for the Jewish practice of dipping the bread into salt comes from our parsha:

You shall season every flour offering with salt; Do not omit the salt of your covenant with God from your flour offerings; with all your offerings you must offer salt. (2:13)

Why is salt such an important part of the sacrifices?

Ibn Ezra says: “Don’t serve the sacrifices plain without seasoning …that is degrading.”

Is this requirement for salt merely a culinary concern? If so, why does is the verse refer to “the covenant of God” when it gives the instruction to salt the sacrifices?

The phrase, “a covenant of salt” (Num 18:19; 2 Chron 13:5) is biblical terminology for an unwavering, everlasting commitment, where salt is used as a metaphor, and much as salt preserves meat and other foodstuffs, the Priesthood or the Davidic monarchy will be interminable, forever.

But this hardly explains why sacrifices need to be salted! Ramban explains:

Salt is (sea)water which, through the power of the sun upon it, becomes salt. Water, in its original form, gives life to the land and causes things to grow, but after it becomes salt, it destroys every place and burns it, such that nothing can be sown or grown

… The salt is like a covenant, so the Torah says, “the kingdom to David over Israel eternally, for his descendants, a covenant of salt."

Rabbeinu Bachya elaborates on this Ramban:

Salt possesses two contrary, contradictory powers - water and fire - which correspond to the two qualities by which the world exists – the attribute of mercy and the attribute of strict justice. For this reason, God says "the salt of the covenant of your God." the covenant of God is compared to salt, because through it, the world is either preserved or destroyed…

Salt can preserve or it can destroy. It preserves meat, and gives flavor to all foods. But it also has the potential to cause death and destruction; after all, land that has been salted will fail to produce any vegetation…”

Accordingly, we will say that every sacrifice needs salt because it expresses the essential idea of the Jewish “korban”. Korban from the root KR”V expresses nearness to God, approaching God. In this encounter, the “korban” itself is not intrinsically pleasing to God, it offers no assurance of blessing. It is the loyalty to God’s covenant that grants life or death, not the offering of a sacrifice. The salt is the symbol of this covenant. If you obey the law, the offering will be a blessing; if the covenant has been flouted, the sacrifice will be seen as an insult and a provocation (see eg. Isaiah 1:10-17).

Preservation or destruction are a function of the covenant. Only the person who obeys God’s law will find their offering to God’s pleasure.

Please Discuss:

  • What is the purpose of the salt on the Temple altar?

  • How does salt in particular express the God-Israel covenant?

  • Why is that important to remember when engaging in the sacrificial ritual?

And in an entirely different dimension, here is a fascinating Midrash brought by Rabbeinu Bachya:

“The world is one-third desert, one-third inhabited, and one-third water.

The sea stood before God and complained: Master of the universe! The Torah was given in the wilderness; the Temple was built in the inhabited region of the land; what will be with me?

God responded: Israel will always bring salt on the altar”

  • What do you make of this Midrash? What values is it expressing?

Shabbat Shalom!

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