The salt of the Earth; it’s not just an idle compliment

Calling someone the salt of the earth was high praise, indeed, when I was growing up. What is it about salt that makes it so endearing? Sure, it tastes good in foods and it’s a useful preservative; but why is referring to people as salt such a compliment?

The Bible in this week’s Torah reading of Parshat Vayikra[i] emphasizes the importance of salt in the sacrificial service. It enjoins us not to withhold the salt; it’s a covenant with G-d. The requirement is most intriguing, because, after all, G-d doesn’t eat and, in any event, as Maimonides[ii] points out, there are other condiments that may be even more satisfying to the palate? Moreover, why the focus on salt being a solemn covenant?

This is not the only time salt is referred to this way. There’s the reference to the everlasting covenant of salt as it relates to the sacred gifts due to the Kohanim[iii]. The Talmud[iv] explains the reference is meant to convey that just like the covenant of salt is unbreakable, so too are the gifts due to the Kohanim eternal. However, that just begs the question of why is the covenant of salt eternal? What is it about the salt?

There is also the reference in Chronicles[v] to the Davidic dynasty being forever, a covenant of salt. The Malbim[vi] explains that just like salt is not ever lost and continues to exist[vii], the Davidic dynasty will not be extinguished even if not all the descendants are worthy. The Ralbag[viii] focuses on the preservative quality of salt to explain the reference in the verse.

Rashi[ix], though, adds another dimension to the definition of the covenant of salt, beyond just the existential quality. He ascribes faith to the covenant of salt. The Talmud[x] expresses this concept more broadly as awe of G-d being the preservative that assures the eternal life of the soul in the world to come. This may help provide context to the Chinuch’s explanation[xi] that the association of salt with the sacrificial service hints at a deeper meaning. He notes that salt preserves everything and saves it from loss. He explains so too is the sacrificial service a device to save the person from loss and protect the soul so that it is preserved eternal. It is a wonderful sentiment; but how does it work in practice?

Resh Lakish, in the Talmud[xii], provides a cogent analysis of the practical meaning of the covenant of salt. He compares it to the covenant of suffering[xiii]. He explains just as salt seasons the meat and makes it edible so too suffering cleanses a person’s transgressions, purifying the person for a more sublime existence. In line with the foregoing, the Pele Yoetz[xiv] counsels some suffering is necessary because sitting in peace for an entire life is not curative of sins and everyone sins[xv].

Res Lakish[xvi], however, does offer an alternative to actual punishment. He posits that remorse is more effective than an externally imposed penance[xvii] and its effect is more powerful than receiving one hundred lashes[xviii]. It is suggested that this is symbolized by putting salt on a sacrifice. We are metaphorically putting salt on our wounds, through the introspective process of acknowledging the wrongs we did that necessitated bringing the atonement. The root of the Hebrew word ‘Korban’ is ‘Karav’, meaning to get close. We, thus, get close to G-d by recognizing our personal failings and the process preserves us.

There is another quality associated with salt, which focuses on how we relate to others. The Kli Yakar[xix] notes salt appears like just a throwaway, because it is not typically consumed on its own. The benefit derived from salt is intangible, through its use on other things. He compares it to charity. There is no tangible benefit to the grantor in giving it away; but the intangible benefit is priceless. The Talmud[xx]notes that charity is a metaphor for salt. Just like salt is a preservative for meat so too is giving of charity a preservative for money. Rashi[xxi] expresses it more pithily as, whoever wants to salt away money, give charity. It is the giving away of money as charity that preserves wealth.

Whether it is seeing the salt in ourselves and feeling remorse or distributing salt to others in the form of charity, it is a covenant of salt that is eternal and its intangible benefit preserves us. Those who observe the covenant are the salt of the earth.

Today, we no longer have the Temple and sacrifices to offer for atonement. Instead, as Avot D’Rabbi Natan[xxii] reports Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to Rabbi Yehoshua, we have Gemillat Chesed, which serves the same purpose. The Talmud[xxiii] is even more emphatic in its praise of acts of charity, which it equates to being greater than all of the sacrifices. The Midrash[xxiv] explains that it atones not only for inadvertent sins like one of the sacrifices, but even intentional ones. It is also an effective means of obtaining atonement both when the Temple existed and thereafter, including in present times. It also is good for the person in this world, as well as, the world to come.

The Talmud[xxv] also expresses this concept in visual terms. It notes that so long as the Temple stood, the sacrificial Altar facilitated atonement for the Jewish people. Now, a person’s dining table has taken the place of the altar in the Temple and it provides atonement through the Mitzvah of feeding the poor[xxvi] or guests[xxvii]. We can fulfill this fundamental aspect of our Jewish tradition[xxviii] by figuratively spreading the salt, by making sure everyone is fed and adequately provisioned to observe The Passover Seder and holidays, in their homes.

Spread the good cheer and joyful experience of Passover and the Seder, even if we have to share it remotely this year and may we all merit the ultimate redemption.

[i] Leviticus 2:13.

[ii] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:46.

[iii] Numbers 18:19.

[iv] BT Chullin 133b.

[v] II Chronicles 13:5.

[vi] Ibid, Malbim commentary thereon.

[vii] Ibid, Meztudat David commentary thereon.

[viii] Ibid, Ralbag commentary thereon.

[ix] Ibid, Rashi commentary thereon.

[x] BT Shabbat 31a.

[xi] Sefer HaChinuch on Leviticus 2:13.

[xii] BT Brachot 5a.

[xiii] Deuteronomy 28:69.

[xiv] Pele Yoetz 176:1.

[xv] See also BT Shabbat 55a.

[xvi] BT Brachot 7a.

[xvii] Resh Lakish cites Proverbs 17:10 in support for his position. It states that a rebuke enters deeper into an understanding person that a hundred lashes.

[xviii] As Rashi on Brachot 5a notes, the suffering removes the sins.

[xix] Kli Yakar commentary on Leviticus 2:13.

[xx] BT Ketubot 66b.

[xxi] Ibid, Rashi commentary thereon.

[xxii] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:5.

[xxiii] BT Sukkah 49b.

[xxiv] Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:3 (on Parshat Shoftim).

[xxv] See BT Brachot 55a; Chagigah 27a; and Menachot 97a.

[xxvi] See Maharsha commentary on BT Brachot 55a.

[xxvii] See Rashi and Tosafot commentary on BT Menachot 97a.

[xxviii] BT Shabbat 127a.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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