Parshat Vayikra

Torah Reading for Week of March 18-24, 2012

 

“The Worth of Our Salt”
By Rabbi Janet Madden ‘11

Parshat Vayikra (“and He called”) provides a how-to guide that lays out the taxonomy of Temple sacrifices, each category of which calls for particular types of animals, birds or grain. In contrast to the compelling narratives of Beresheit and Shemot, this section of the Torah, replete with rules instead of stories, demonstrates a new level of maturity in the relationship between the people and the Holy One, expressed through communal participation in the sacrificial rites, and even more powerfully, by the responsibility of every individual to bring offerings. The specificity of the instructions accompanying each kind of sacrifice makes clear that sacrifice is not a pro forma obligation. That each sacrifice is a holy act is emphasized by the articulation of the concomitant state of intentionality on the part of the person who brings the specified offering and by prescribed actions by the cohanim who perform the sacrificial rites on the behalf of the people. Vayikra demonstrates that sacrifice is the visceral expression of the relationship between G-d and Israel through its emphasis on the nuances and complexities of the sacrificial rites and, most of all, through its reiteration that whether the offering is bird, animal or grain, there is a single component that unifies every offering: salt.

So ubiquitous and inexpensive today that we take it for granted, salt held an elevated status in all cultures of the ancient world both for its function as food preservative and as seasoning. In contrast to pagan sacrificial rites in which blood was drunk and salt was not used, salt’s role in ancient Israel is embodied in its status in Temple sacrifices, which eschewed the consumption of blood and mandated the addition of salt, a substance that defined the Land in the form of Yom Ha-Melah, the Salt Sea. Salt appears throughout the Tanach as a symbol of permanence and, particularly, as a symbol of covenantal relationship. The declaration that “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord…shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well” in Parshat Korach explicitly establishes the relationship of salt and sacrifice in the context of sacrifice and covenant. Chronicles 13:5 tells us that the Davidic line is established by a covenant of salt. Ezekial 16:4 reports that in ancient Israel, newborns were rubbed with salt, and Ezra 6:9 and 7:22 record that large quantities of salt were delivered to the post-exilic Temple for use in sacrifices, underscoring Vayikra’s instruction about the use of salt in each kind of offering.

It is easy to understand the sacrificial requirement of salt in the context of meat, since salt would have removed blood from the altar, much as today we use salt as a purifying and consecrating agent in kashering. More intriguing and poignant is the inclusion of salt in the grain sacrifices, which presages how we use salt ritually today. Pablo Neruda’s depiction of salt’s “broken voice” and “mournful song” in his “Ode to Salt” captures the emotional undercurrent of how we commemorate the Temple’s destruction in our custom of sprinkling salt over bread after making the blessing over it.

Me’am Loez records the legend that at the Creation, when the lower world was parted from the firmament and the waters of the heavens from the waters of the seas were separated, the seas begged the Creator to be placed closer, not off in the distance. In order to reassure the seas that they had not been abandoned or rejected, they were granted the privilege of providing salt for all Temple sacrifices. Similarly, our mindful ritual use of salt brings us closer to our history, our traditions, and our G-d. Salt, as Neruda understands, is not merely the “dust of the sea”; in the “smallest, miniature wave from the saltcellar…we taste infinitude.”

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