We are all familiar with the Jewish custom to dip our bread in salt before we partake of it. The Rama tells us that this is rooted in the notion that in the absence of the Temple and the Altar, upon which sacrifices were offered, our tables are now our ‘Altar’, and just as every offering had to be accompanied with salt, as the verse states “on your every offering shall you offer salt”, similarly we add to the bread we eat, which is our ‘offering’, some salt. Additionally, he states that salt mystically serves to protect us from calamity. (או"ח קסז ה)

The Torah informs that ‘salt’ represents a covenant between G-d and the world. When G-d on the second day of Creation separated the upper heavenly waters above the firmament from the lower earthly waters beneath it, the lower waters cried in protest that they too wanted to remain close to G-d. G-d placated them by making a covenant with them that they too would achieve closeness to G-d by taking part in every sacrifice in having the salt which is extracted from the sea accompany each and every offering that was brought upon the Altar. (רש"י ויקרא ב יג)

How was this accommodation to salt an appeasement to the water that so pined closeness? Salt is merely a substance that dissolves in water but it is not identified as water itself.

Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the first description of salt in its role accentuating it as a ‘covenant of salt’, is more accurately identified as, מלח, ברית אלקיך (ויקרא ב יג), salt, the covenant of your G-d. It seems to be the covenant itself not merely a conveyer of a covenant between G-d and the world. In what way is salt considered the ‘covenant’ itself?

One of the marvelous laws embedded within nature is the scientific principle known as ‘Osmosis’.

Simply stated, osmosis is the movement of water molecules in one solution into another through a semi-permeable membrane that separates them. A liquid solution consists of a dissolved substance called a solute and a liquid called a solvent. During osmosis, some of the solvent from one solution moves through a membrane into another solution. The solvent always preserves a balance of solute concentrations on both sides of the membrane that divides them.

Salt is a solute and when it comes in contact with the outer membrane of a cell with a lower concentration of solutes within it will inevitably cause the solvent to travel out from its cell seeking to equalize the balance of solutes on each side of the membrane that separates them.

A perfect example of this idea is the kashering procedure of salting meat in order to extract its blood. When the salt comes in contact with the solvent laden and solute deficient meat it enacts the process of osmosis with the blood traveling outwardly craving to maintain a balance of solutes on each side of its cells ‘membranes’, by bringing a larger volume of solvent to dilute and diminish the concentration of solutes external to it.

This remarkable scientific property of water is actually a physical manifestation of a much greater spiritual osmosis.

Water is the symbol of life and the source of all growth for without it one cannot live or thrive. On a spiritual level it represents Torah and our connection and yearning for G-d, life itself. In the physical realm, however, water symbolizes our material existence and our natural inclination to cleave to the pleasures of this earthly existence.

Salt possesses the ability to preserve and prevent decay. By drawing out the moisture from foods it disables bacteria from developing in the absence of water. It closes an object to itself, sand renders it not susceptible to exterior changing influences. It represents unchangeableness; independent and unaffected by outer influences. (RSRH)

The Holy Shelah points out that the word מלח, salt, is numerically equivalent to the Ineffable Name: י-ה-ו-ה, multiplied three times (78) , emphasizing G-d’s immutability who is, היה הווה ויהיה; was, is and will be (which is also equal to 78!).

When G-d’s presence is sensed by living with a notion of  'מלח', undiluted by our drowning in the ‘waters’ of physical desires and pleasures that we inundate ourselves in, then the spiritual waters above will penetrate through that semi-permeable membrane, the firmament, enveloping us with the מי הדעת, the ‘waters of knowledge’, seeking to create that perfect balance, enabling us to live inspired in a physical world in closeness to G-d. This is the ‘spiritual osmosis’ that we pine for.

The ‘covenant of salt’ is mentioned in three contexts. Firstly, here by the sacrifices. The second reference is in association with the מתנות כהונה, ‘gifts of priesthood’, where the Torah attests to G-d’s indestructible relationship with the family of Kehunah as a ברית מלח (במדבר יח יט), a covenant of salt. Lastly G-d makes a ברית מלח (דה"י ב יג ה), covenant of salt, with the House of David asserting His unbreakable bond with them assuring they will reign eternally.  

The very first reference to salt in the Torah is when G-d rains ‘sulfur and salt’ upon the decadent inhabitants of Sodom. The second time is when the wife of Lot after not heeding the warning to not look back turns into a pillar of salt.

After Avraham retrieves the booty of Sodom after his victory against the four kings, he declares his unwillingness to partake even ‘from a thread to a shoe strap’ from the tainted possessions of Sodom. At that juncture Malchi-Zedek the King of Shalem, offers ‘wine and bread’.  Rashi quotes the Midrash that teaches that Malchi-Zedek was prophetically revealing how Avraham’s children will one day bring ‘meal offerings and libations’ on this very spot in the future.  

The Talmud reports that it was this encounter that G-d transferred Kehunah, priesthood from Malchi-Zedek to Avraham. (נדרים לב) The Chizkuni actually interprets the verse that seems to indicate that Avraham proffered  a tithe to Malchi-Zedek, that it was on the contrary, Malchi-Zedek who gave the tithe to Avraham in confirmation of his attaining Kehunah.

The Midrash indicates that the Davidic dynasty was discovered right after the destruction of Sodom, the night Lot cohabited with his daughter, who eventually gave birth to Moav from whom Rus, the ‘Mother of Royalty” descended. (ב"ר ז י)

Sodom epitomizes selfishness, a society that seeks to indulge in personal pleasure at the expense of all else. Salt rained down upon this corrupt people draining the very life force from them.

There are three areas that our selfish interests encroach upon. Firstly in our neglect of our duties to G-d, secondly in our responsibility to our fellow man and finally we betray our very own self by quashing the greatness that lays within each one of us.

Sacrifices represent our commitment to G-d. The Kohen Gadol and the other priests who follow in the image of their illustrious ancestor Aharon remain the image of devotion to one’s fellow man not only by acting as their agents in the Temple but in bestowing G-d’s blessing upon the people daily, באהבה, ‘with love’. The King is one who stands alone before no one but G-d as the Talmud describes the King as one who has ‘no one but G-d above him’. He remains the image of personal greatness that people are drawn towards by the luminescence of his excellence in perfection of character and radiant nobility.

It is precisely in the stark contrast to the destruction of the selfish minions of Sodom that the seeds of our greatness arose embodied in those who learned the lesson of ‘spiritual osmosis’.

The Arizal urges us to dip our bread three times in salt before we eat. Perhaps it is to reiterate our sense of mission in pursuing our greatness in our relationship between man and G-d; man and fellow; man and himself.

May we create a ‘spiritual osmosis’ in our own lives by selflessly devoting ourselves to G-d, our fellow man and, as importantly, to ourselves.


צבי טייכמאן