Rabbi Dror Brama
Former Rosh Kollel in London
The Torah commands us to salt all offerings.
It is a positive commandment to salt all offerings before they are brought on the altar, as it says, “With all your offerings you must offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13). . . . If a person brought the offering without any salt he receives lashes [for transgressing a negative commandment], since the Torah states (Ibid.), “You must not omit the salt of your covenant with God.” Although he receives lashes, the offering is kosher and acceptable, except in the case of the meal offering (korban minchah). In that case, the lack of salt invalidates the offering, as the Torah says (Ibid.), “You must not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God” (Rambam, HilkhotIssureiMizbe’ach, 5:11-12).
There are two questions which trouble us about this verse.
1) As everyone knows, in the Jewish family many things revolve around food. The original mother, the first to be called “mother of all life” (Genesis 3:20), was unable to restrain herself, and fed her husband the forbidden fruit. That was the beginning of a long history of feeding. Parents feed children, children feed parents. The Bible and Jewish history are chock full of Jewish food.
God, as well, feeds and supports us every minute of every day, as is mentioned in many verses and in BirkatHaMazon (Grace After Meals). Like good children, we return the favor:
When God said to Moses, “Command the Israelite people and say to them: ‘Be punctilious in presenting to My fire the offerings of food due Me’” (Numbers 28:2), Moses asked, “Who can supply offerings for God? If we offer all the animals of the field and fuel them with all the cedars of Lebanon, it would still be insufficient for Him, as it is written (Isaiah 40:16), ‘Lebanon is not fuel enough, nor its animals enough for sacrifice.’” God responded, “I am not requesting offerings in accordance with My ability, but in accordance with theirs” (BamidbarRabbah 12:3).
In the framework of this article, we will not enter into an extensive discussion of the meaning of the offerings, but we will raise one specific problem which stands out in our parashah. It is not enough that we feed the offerings to the fire on the altar, so to speak, but we also season them with salt. The implicit similarity to feeding people seems excessive. We don’t just serve food, we make sure it is tasty. But why should this be important for the fire?
2) What is the connection between salt and the covenant? Why does salt symbolize the covenant between us and God?
We can answer both these questions if we understand the symbolic significance of salt in the broader scheme of things.
A little salt is good, a lot is bad. If we add the right amount, the bland becomes tasty. If we overdo it, we ruin the food. In biological systems as well, a delicate balance of salt is critical for most bodily functions. An imbalance of salinity can cause severe damage to metabolic processes.
The Gemara helps us understand the connection between salt, covenant, and offering:
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The word “covenant” is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word “covenant” is mentioned in connection with suffering. The word “covenant” is mentioned in connection with salt, as it is written, “You must not omit the salt of your covenant with God” (Leviticus 2:13). And the word “covenant” is mentioned in connection with suffering, as it is written [following the list of curses in Ki Tavo], “These are the words of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 28:69). Just as in the covenant of salt, the salt seasons the meat, so too in the covenant of suffering, the suffering purges all of a person’s sins (Berachot 5a).
Salt on its own is not tasty; but when it is added to meat, the combination is tastier than meat without salt. So too, suffering on its own is difficult; but when it is integrated into the course of a life punctuated with sins and errors, it has a better outcome than life without suffering.
A covenant is a bilateral agreement. Each side commits itself to something, and is subject to sanctions for breach of covenant. The goal of these sanctions isn’t to declare the covenant null and void, but to force the side which is backing out to resume following the covenant and to honor its commitment. Even this type of sanction needs to be carefully measured out. So too, suffering in the life of the individual and the nation is like salt. In a certain quantity, Divinely measured out, it strengthens the covenant. In excess, a person cannot bear it and simply collapses under the strain.
When we bring an offering to God, we bring it according to our ability, not His. In general, in all the offerings, we take something representative of all our abilities in life, and offer it to God. Together with our abilities in life, we also bring salt – the pain and suffering, everything which seasons the meat, and which helps us to hold on to the covenant.