The significance of Salt in Jewish Literature.

(For Rabbi Dr Alfred Schoner)

Since I was a little boy I was intrigued about Salt and its significance (if any), particularly that I was interested in the story by Bozena Nemcova a Czech writer of the 19th century who wrote "Sul nad Zlato" (Salt above Gold).

The story tells us about a King who had three daughters and he asked each of them to tell him how much they loved him. The two daughters said that they loved him more than gold or silver but the youngest said that she loved him more than salt, upon which the King got very upset and banished the youngest princess from the Kingdom. The King has also banished all salt in the realm to be either used or mined. The end result was inevitable, many people got ill and the food was tasteless.

The other intriguing time for me was, when I saw how the former Soviet leaders welcomed their guests at airports or railway stations because they offered salt and bread. Of course there is a use of salt and bread when Jews make Kiddush, sanctify the Sabbath or festivals apart from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when instead of salt money is used.

Shakespeare in his "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and in "Othello" mentions salt to symbolize strong amorous passions. In the former he says "We have some The Salt of youth" and in the latter "Hot as monkeys, salt as wolves in pride"

Salt seemed to conjure up a strong image in respect of money and power as for example the "Salt Hill"- The Mound at Eton school, (the famous Public School in England), where the scholars used to collect money for the Captain at the Montem. All the money collected was called Salt (salary). Equally salt was referred to as "money" when a statement is made such as "To salt an account"-to put extreme value upon each article or "To salt away or down"-To store or preserve for future use especially money.

In the New Testament, for example in Matthew v.13 we find a reference to "The Salt of the Earth" meaning someone who is perfect, the elect, the best of mankind "Our Lord told his disciples they were the salt of the earth".

The Rabbis have also considered reference to "salt" as something special and a reason for divorce: as for example Bet Shammai say, 'a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, but Beth Hillel says, 'even if she spoilt his food.' " Gittin 90a. Let me now look at some of the passages of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, with reference to "Salt".


The Jewish symbolism of the salt can be derived from the verse in Ezra 4:14 where we read "We eat the salt of the palace", seemingly pointing to the idea that salt was used as a symbol of alliances, which may have found its way to this meaning through the "A covenant of Salt" in Numbers chapter 18:19 as here we see that the salt has become a symbol of incorruptibility and also perpetuity. Rashi the 11th Century French Jewish scholar, exegesist living in Troys explains that salt played its part since Creation " the salt of [your God's] covenant for there was a covenant made with salt since the six days of Creation' in that the lower waters were promised that they would be offered on the altar/ [And how were they offered? In the form of] salt [which comes from water'] and in the water libations on the Festival [of Succoth]/ [You shall offer salt] on all your sacrifices [including] burnt-offerings from animals and birds' and the 'EMURIM'- the portions of the sacrifices offered up on the altar' from all holy sacrifices (Talmud [Menachot 20a).
Another way of looking at Ezra's passage is that, "In which the enemies of the returned exiles protest their loyalty to the king of Persia "because we eat of the salt of the palace" is to be understood as an expression of abiding loyalty to the palace, and not as the Authorized King's Bible Version translates this verse as saying "maintenance of the palace". It is also possible to read this passage that the officials of Persia were sent to Jerusalem to monitor the doings of the Israelites as they were rebuilding the Temple after the First Exile. And so, since the officials were eating the "salt of the palace", they had a moral obligation to report back to the Persian ruler, that once the Temple was rebuilt the Israelites would not the obligation to pay the Persian King his due

taxes. (Valerie Collis's remark after my lecture on Salt in the Jewish Literature-Cambridge). It is understood that the King of Persia provided Salt to the Temple so that it could be used in the day to day sacrificial ceremonies and see that indeed salt was used for that purpose, the statement in Josephus (Ant. 12: 140) that Antiochus the Great made a gift of 375 medimni (bushels) of salt to the Jews for the Temple service, and there was a special Salt Chamber in the Temple (Mid. 5:3).

Salt equated with covenant can be seen from II SAMUEL 7:11-16-and Isaiah 55:3 both passages refer to the importance of the covenant "Incline your ear and come to Me' hearken and your soul shall live' and I will make for you an everlasting covenant' the dependable mercies of David". See also: The rights of the priests to their share of the offerings is "a due for ever, an everlasting covenant of salt" (Num. 18:19), and Abijah, king of Judah, assures Jeroboam, who had seceded from the House of David, that God has given the kingdom to the House of David by "a covenant of salt" (II Chronicle. 13: 5).

Undoubtedly as one makes a covenant with important people, or those who are important to one and as covenant is equated with salt we can deduce that salt is important. After all salt is an important ingredient when dealing with sacrifices, whether it be in the Tabernacle or later at the Temple--"To sit above the salt"-To sit in a place of distinction-see also- Lev 2:13 "And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt' and you shall not omit the salt of your God was covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings "You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices. (II Chronicles 13:5-19 "All the gifts of the holy [offerings] which are set aside by the children of Israel for the Lord I have given to you' and to your sons and daughters with you' as an eternal portion` it is like an eternal covenant of salt before the Lord' for you and your descendants with you, Should you not know that the Lord' the God of Israel' gave the kingdom to David over Israel forever' to him and to his sons' [with] a covenant of salt?"

Covenant such as the Covenant of Abraham (circumcision) has an air of permanency and therefore it does not seem so difficult to associate salt with that permanency or importance, as expressed in showing how salt was used to preserve bodies, meat and food. Philo in his commentary on Lev 2:13 evokes the power of salt to preserve bodies from corruption and decay. Although he gives a symbolic interpretation to this quality of salt, one can conclude that for him the primary use of salt in the sacrifice was to PRESERVE. Greek sources do not seem to mention or have references to the use of salt in sacrifices as often as the Hebrew Bible. Philo also emphasized salt as the symbol of friendship-"Instead of being subject to accusation, they had been made partners in the board and salt which men have devised as the symbol of true friendship". Concurring with Philo was the Rabbinical view which stated "There are three things of which one may easily have too much while a little is good, namely, yeast, salt, and refusal" The wife of Lot became a Statue of salt because she objected when her husband requested that she give the guests a little salt. She said, "Should I introduce here the bad custom" Homilies IX (321).

Ben Sirach also agreed with these sentiments see:

The Wisdom of Ben Sirach 39:22-27-"The elements necessary for man's life are water and fire and iron and salt, and wheat flour and milk and honey, the blood of the grape and olive oil and clothing. All these things prove good to the godly, just as they turn into evils for the sinful"


SALT was considered the most common and essential of all condiments, salt plays an essential role in Jewish life, ritual, and symbolism. It was plentiful in Eretz Israel with inexhaustible quantities being found in the area of the Dead Sea. Its first mention in the Bible is in reference to Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19: 26). It was also an important ingredient in the use of incense see Exodus 30:35 "And you shall make it into incense' a compound according to the art of the perfumer' well blended' pure' holy" or in Ezekiel 16:4 "And as for your birth' on the day you were born' your navel was not cut' neither were you washed with water for cleansing' nor were you salted' nor swaddled at all, also Job 6:6 "Can bland food be eaten without salt' or is there a taste in the saliva of strong-tasting food?".

In the Ezekiel quote there is a strong reference to the use of salt as a disinfectant but also seems to have an even more powerful symbolical value in telling someone that he had not has any of those privileged treatments as one would associate with birth of importance. The cleansing and hygienic power of salt is reflected in Elisha's act of purifying the bad waters of Jericho by casting salt into the springs (II Kings 2:20, 21), and in the custom of rubbing newly born infants with salt (Ezek. 16:4). On the other hand, it was known that salinity in soil caused aridity (Deut. 29:22; Job 39:6), and when Abimelech captured and destroyed Shechem, he "sowed it with salt" as a sign that it should not be rebuilt (Judges. 9:45).
The importance of salt as a condiment is also stressed in the Bible. Job asks rhetorically whether "that which hath no savor be eaten without salt" (6:6), and Ben Sirach includes salt among the nine essentials of life (Ecclus. 39:26). Salt was an essential element of the Jewish table and it became customary to put salt on the bread over which grace before meals was recited. A Yiddish proverb has it that "no Jewish table should be without salt" which is in accordance with the homily that makes one's table "an altar before the Lord" (cf. Avot 3:4). The ability of salt to absorb blood (Hullin. 113a) is the basis of the important laws of kashering meat so that all blood be removed (see Dietary Laws). Salt of Sodom (Melah Sedomit) was particularly potent, having an admixture probably of the acrid potassium chloride of the Dead Sea. Its presence in common salt ("one grain in a kor of salt"), and the harmful effect it might have on the eyes, caused the custom of mayim aharonim, the washing of one's hands after a meal, to be instituted, in addition to the statutory washing before meals (Hullin. 105b).

There is a difference of opinion as to whether this washing of the hands is obligatory or merely advisable. Tosafot (loc. cit.) lays it down that since salt of Sodom does not exist in France the custom of mayim aharonim did not obtain there. Despite this ruling, the retention of the custom is widespread today. Salt of Sodom was also an ingredient of the incense used in the Temple during the period of the Second Temple (Keritoth. 6a).
Salt was a lifeline and sometime thus shown as equal to blood. Salt and covenant also were interchangeable as we can see from the following Talmudic passage:
"For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, and the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings: the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt, as it is written: Neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking. And the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings, as it is written: These are the words of the covenant. Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat, so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man"-- (Talmud Berachot 5a)


Salt was also used as a symbol of punishment see Lot and her turning into the Pillar of Salt but also see Psalm 107/33 and 34 "He makes rivers into a desert' and springs of water into an arid place`. A fruitful land into a salty waste' because of the evil of its inhabitants" and in Judges 9:45 "...........And Abimelech fought against the city all that day` and he captured the city' and killed the people that were therein/ And he broke down the city' and sowed it with salt". And healing powers: II Kings 2:20-22 "......And he said' "Take me to a new jug and put salt therein'" and they took to him. And he went out to the source of the water and threw salt there` and he said' "So has the Lord said' I have cured these waters` there will no longer be death and bereavement from there And the water became cured to this day' according to the word of Elisha that he spoke" See also: Talmud - Mas. Baba Kama 92b--And shall cry unclean, unclean. Rabbah [again] said to Rabbah b. Mari: Whence can be derived the advice given by our Rabbis: Have early breakfast in the summer because of the heat, and in the winter because of the cold, and people even say that sixty men may pursue him who has early meals in the mornings and will not overtake him? - He replied: As it is written, They shall not hunger nor thirst, neither shall the heat nor sun smite them. He said to him: You derive it from that text but I derive it from this one, And ye shall serve the Lord your God: this [as has been explained] refers to the reading of Shema' and the Tefillah, 'And he will bless thy bread and thy water:' this refers to the bread dipped in salt and to the pitcher of water; and after this, I will take [Mahalah, i.e.] sickness away from the midst of thee. It was [also] taught: Mahalah means gall; and why is it called mahalah! Because eighty-three different kinds of illnesses may result from it [as the numerical value of mahalah amounts exactly to this]; but they all are counteracted by partaking in the morning of bread dipped in salt followed by a pitcher of water ".


In conclusion, perhaps we can bring modern Israel into the equations just as I was fascinated by the former Soviet leaders welcoming dignitaries with Salt and Bread so today in modern Israel the custom has developed for the mayor of Jerusalem or the elders of the city, to greet distinguished visitors with an offering of bread and salt at the entrance of the city, and not with bread and wine as Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem), greeted Abraham (Gen. 14:18).
There is no rabbinic authority for this practice. Philo (Jos. 35: 210), however, states that Joseph invited his brethren to a meal of "bread and salt" (cf. Genesis 43: 16, 31), and among the ancient Arabs it was the custom to seal a covenant with bread and salt.

Westminster Synagogue
January 2006

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