Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Salt as a Metaphor
Dr. Yair Barkai
All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and for your offspring as well. (Numbers )
From the plain sense of the verse and from the immediate context, it is not possible to ascribe a single clear-cut meaning to the expression “covenant of salt.” What does salt have to do with the priestly gifts such as Terumah, first-fruits, and portions of the sacrifices enumerated in the above parasha? To understand this, we must examine other places in Scriptures where the words “covenant” and “salt” appear together. They are found in another two verses:
On the words “salt of your covenant” that appear in Leviticus, Rashi comments: “salt of your covenant – because a covenant was established with salt as far back as the six days of Creation when the lower waters [the oceans] received an assurance that they would be offered on the altar [in the form of] salt, and also [as water in the ceremony of] the libation of water on the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Rashi, following the Midrash, explains the origins of the biblical injunction to put salt on all offerings, mentioned three times in this verse, but he does not actually associate this with the phrase in our verse, “covenant of salt.” We mean to say that on reading this Rashi, one may distinguish between the covenant that the Lord established with salt (melah berit) as far back as the six days of Creation, and the expression “a covenant of salt”(berit melah) in which the word salt serves to describe the nature of the covenant.
Rashbam also differentiated between the expressions berit melah and melah berit:
Covenant of salt (berit melah) – this appears to me to be an expression indicating ‘forever’, ‘everlasting’. Thus David and his offspring [in Chron.] are promised an everlasting covenant, for the resolution of the meaning is according to the context at hand [he means to say that in our verse and in Chronicles, the word olam, ‘forever’, appears alongside and serves to define berit melah]. But the expression, “you shall not omit … the salt of your covenant with G-d [ melah berit elohekha]” (Lev.) refers to actual salt. A covenant of salt [is an expression which] means a covenant that exists and is perpetuated forever.
Unlike Rashi and his grandson, Nahmanides makes a connection between all three verses-- the verse in Leviticus and the verses in this week’s reading and in Chronicles:
Since it [the salt] is a covenant made on all offerings, Scripture makes this the archetype of all covenants, and uses the expression “covenant of salt” with regard to gifts given the priesthood (Num. 18:19) and with regard to David’s kingship (II Chron. 13:5), because it is everlasting just as the covenant of salt on offerings.
In other words, the covenant that G-d made with the salt, that it be placed on the offerings, became the prototype for all other covenants because of its quality of everlastingness. Nahmanides continues with a discussion of the unique qualities of salt as a metaphor for the essence of a covenant:
I suppose the idea is that salt is water, and by the power of the sun that shines on the water salt is made; water, by its nature, soaks the earth and gives rise to vegetation; but on becoming salt it destroys every place, burning it up so that it not be sown and not bring forth plants. Now a covenant too is composed of all the qualities (middot) and both water and fire come into it … like salt that gives flavor to all foods, and can preserve but also destroys. Because salt possesses the qualities of a covenant, therefore Scripture says (II Chron. 13:5), “Surely you know that the Lord G-d of Israel gave David kingship over Israel forever – to him and his sons – by a covenant of salt,” because this is also the nature of David [a nature of extremes]… Therefore it says with regard to the offerings (Num., loc. sit.), “It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt,” for the covenant [with G-d] is the salt of the earth, it can maintain the world or destroy it …
In the nature of Ramban’s commentary, many ideas are included here. The Tur interprets as follows: “Just as salt maintains the world and destroys it, so too, through the covenant of the offerings, the world is made everlasting or destroyed if they do not offer sacrifices.”
We prefer to stress the following idea in Nahmanides: he draws conclusions from the opposing characteristics that are peculiar to salt-- it gives flavor to food, on one hand, but its saltiness can render food inedible, on the other: This is the fundamental characteristic of any covenant: if it is upheld the covenant is a positive thing, but if violated, it promises retribution. Thus we see that the word salt to describe a covenant is employed because of the opposing characteristics that it has.
Kli Yakar gave the notion of opposites in salt a new twist:
Note that in the nature of salt is one thing and its opposite, for it has the power of fire and warmth, and of begetting water, so that the rabbis of the Kabbalah said it stands for the quality of justice and the quality of mercy. Therefore it is called “the covenant of your G-d,” because in this offering of sacrifices, a covenant is made with G-d to make Him ruler over all opposites… The sacrifices are similar to charity (tzedakah), which have been compared to salt in that they sustain the flesh. [ Kli Yakar is referring to an enigmatic epigram in Tractate Ketubbot 66b, melah, mamon, haser—which seems to mean, says Rashi, that he who wants to “salt away” his money should give it away to charity, and in this way he preserves it. Another reading is melah-mamon-hesed, with roughly the same meaning: let him use it for good deeds. In this epigram, salt and charity or good deeds appear together]. The good deed in bringing a sacrifice is greater than the offering itself, as it is written: “To do what is right [tzedakah] and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). With reference to this it is said: “with all your offerings you must offer salt” (Lev. ), for salt [representing charity or good deeds] is put on all offerings and more desired by the Lord than sacrifice.
In the Kli Yakar’s interpretation salt represents good deeds, and being put on the offerings, as indicated in the commandment cited from Leviticus [which literally says, “over’ or ‘above’(‘al) all your sacrifices you must place salt”], it symbolizes the superiority of the good deed done in bringing an offering over the offering itself.
Malbim ascribes the use of salt as a metaphor to another characteristic that it has:
Salt does not become noxious in odor and does not spoil; moreover, it restores other things so that they will not spoil, thus this covenant will not be broken by sins.
Just as salt preserves meat, keeping it from rotting, so too G-d promises that the covenant he has with the priests will not be abrogated by sins.
Ha’amek Davar brings up the moral issue of abusing the sanctity of the priesthood, also relying on the symbolism in the dual nature of salt:
Like salt, which can be used to season food if care is taken not to use too much, but which ruins [the taste of] food if used not in the proper amount, so too the covenant of the priesthood is a great privilege when used properly in sanctity, but if it is not used properly it destroys the soul.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, similar, to Malbim notes that salt never changes (so too the Sages, cited by Rashi: “covenant of salt – like a covenant sealed in salt, which never becomes putrid”), and this leads him to the following comment (on Lev. 2:3):
Thus we learn that salt represents immutable existence… The “covenant” will be upheld in all circumstances and will continue to exist under all conditions; and if we are dealing with a “covenant of salt,” it will continue to exist without any change: something over which a “covenant of salt” has been concluded not only exists forever, but is also eternally immutable.
Now the covenant that
is symbolized in offerings by salt is called the “Covenant of your G-d.”
Hence the reference is to the Covenant which
lies in the
We conclude with the story of what Abimelech did in Shechem as an illustration of the dual significance in the use of salt (Judges ): “ Abimelech fought against the city all that day. He captured the city and massacred the people in it; he razed the town and sowed it with salt.” Scholars differ as to what this deed of Abimelech’s was meant to signify. Some believe he intended to symbolize the total destruction of Shechem, while others hold that he sought to atone through the salt, as a means of purification and atonement, for the sin of his having killed the residents of Shechem, and thereby save himself from their blood vengeance.