Parashat Korach 5778
“Salt as a symbol of eternity in Judaism”
After Korach and his people rebelled against Moses and Aaron and were punished, God gave some instructions to the Priests and the tribe of Levi regarding the rituals in the Tabernacle. This is one of them:
“All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the LORD I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for you and for your offspring as well. “(Bamidvar 18:19)
Why is it written that all the sacred gifts shall be “an everlasting covenant of salt”? What does “covenant of salt” mean?
Rashi understands “covenant of salt” to mean that the covenant made with salt would never decay. As a clarification, in the ancient Near East, it was common that covenants were sealed with salt.
Rabbeinu Bahya explains that the words “it is an eternal covenant” mean that the covenant described as a “salt-like covenant” is an eternal covenant. Just as salt preserves the meat indefinitely, so this type of covenant endures indefinitely.
Ramban says that the Torah uses the term “salt” to symbolize something that endures indefinitely. It occurs in this sense in the Book of Chronicles II: “Surely you know that the LORD God of Israel gave David kingship over Israel forever—to him and his sons—by a covenant of salt” (Chronicles II 13,5), promising David and his descendants an enduring dynasty by mentioning the covenant of salt to symbolize this.
According to these interpretations, a “covenant of salt” refers to an unbreakable covenant, being that salt is a symbol of permanence.
Reading the verse mentioned before from this week’s parashah, I started to think how salt plays an important role in Judaism.
Salt is first mentioned in the Torah in reference to Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt (Bereshit 19:26). She was not able to look at the future, so she was anchored in the past, as a pillar of salt, forever.
Salt was an essential requisite for all sacrifices. The extent to which salt was used in the sacrifices may be seen in the statement that the first-century Jewish scholar, historian, and hagiographer Flavius Josephus (Ant. 12: 140) said that Antiochus the Great made a gift of 375 medimni (bushels) of salt to the Jews for the Temple service.
In addition, it is written in the Mishnah, Masechet Midot that there was in the Temple a chamber of salt where salt was stored for the sacrifices. (Midot 5:3) The priests needed a great quantity of salt for the sacrifices every day.
What happened after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem? We don’t have sacrifices; however, we put salt on the challah during Shabbat and Festivals. Why? The Talmud explains: “Rabbi Yoḥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions. (Talmud Babli Masechet Brachot 55a).
If the table is like the altar, the food eaten upon it is like the offerings. Since, after the destruction of the Temple, the table set for a meal was considered as an altar, the Rabbis recommended that salt should be put upon it. Based on this idea, the custom emerged to put salt on our challot, in response to, or substitute for, the putting of salt on the offerings in the altar of the Temple.
There is also a superstition around the custom to put salt on challah. It is written in the Tosafot that when people sit at table without performing any commandment (“mitzvah”) Satan accuses them, and only the covenant of salt protects them (Tos. to Ber. l.c.). And there were medieval mystics who taught that salt drives off evil spirits.
In Israel, salt has always been abundant because of the Dead Sea, called in Hebrew “Yam Hamelach,” the “Salt Sea.”
Salt is also considered as the most necessary condiment, and therefore the Rabbis likened the Torah to it; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8). In the Talmud, Masechet Berachot, it is written that a meal without salt is considered no meal and that salt is one of the three things which must not be used in excess (Talmud Bavli Masechet Berachot. 44a and 55a).
The Rabbis recognized in salt different properties owing to which it is prominent in the ritual code. The most important one is the ability of salt to absorb blood, which is the basis of the important laws of koshering meat so that all blood can be removed (Talmud Bavli Masechet Ḥulin 113a). Also, we put salt into water during the Passover Seder to symbolize the tears and suffering of the people of Israel in Egypt.
As you can see, salt was, and remains, an important ingredient in different rituals in our tradition.
Salt symbolizes permanence and perpetuity. May we be able to make a covenant of salt, preserving our tradition and passing it on to the next generations, making of it an eternal covenant.