"It's Too Salty": Vayikra 5774 by Cantor Lipp

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 9:58am -- AJ Blog

My Uncle Vic was a real character. When he made a Caesar Salad, I'm told, he would tell his guests not to add salt until AFTER they tasted it. Woe the guest who didn't listen and complained afterwards that it was too salty. 

As we begin the book of Leviticus, the instruction booklet for the priestly sacrificial system, one verse alone includes the word Salt 4 times, telling us that all our sacrifices should include salt, that our relationship with God is a Covenant of Salt. 

Why is salt so important? Removal of blood for those sacrifices that would be consumed would be a practical use of the mineral as we are prohibited from eating blood. A more poetic reason given by Rashi, quoting earlier midrashic sources, is that at Creation, God consoled the lower waters, separated from the upper waters by the atmosphere on the second day, with the fact that their salt would be used for sacrifices on God's altar in the future and that the lower waters would be used for the Water Libation many years after that on what would become the most joyous day on the ancient Temple's calendar. 

Later in the Torah we are informed that the Priesthood and King David are offered covenants of salt lending to their permanence in the Israelite charter. Since both are supposed to last forever, it may be that the quality of salt being suggested here is that of preservative. Before refrigeration, if you wanted to save food and not let it rot, salt was a good place to start.

Although salt may also have had a remunerative function in ancient history, being used as such in a confusing verse from Ezra as well as understood by many as the source for the words salary and soldier, I’d like to concentrate on three aspects of Judaism that could be ‘salted’ in different ways: to drain the life-blood (but, as Mark Twain might say if he were a Biblical scholar, I repeat myself) from practices we abhor, to preserve those that we must despite controversy, and to make more palatable those that are amenable to sprinkling. 

1. It’s time to salt the lifeblood out of the permission for slavery from the Torah once and for all. Although it’s not officially practiced Jewishly, this is a good use of the salt of removal. It’s worth noting that the three covenants of salt in the Bible have been so drained: the Kingship of David is one for which we long in the coming of the Messiah but most of us in the liberal orbit of Judaism don’t suffer to greatly for the absence of a Judean King descended from David. The sacrifices we similarly are not eager to resume (even Maimonides wasn’t). And there is still a priesthood but their standing is nowhere near what it was in Leviticus, even in the most traditional of settings.

2. We need to use salt to preserve rituals like circumcision of baby boys at the age of 8 days. The health benefits FAR outweigh the risks. There are practices associated with it that should be minimized or abolished, like m’tzitzah b’peh, the practice of some ritual circumcizers to apply their mouth to the site which causes unnecessary herpes in some children, but that aside, the health benefits to men and women are measurable and far more preponderant than the deficits.

3. We should salt to taste the use of musical instruments during shabbat services. A complete overhaul would disconnect us from two millenia of powerful a capella tradition and practice but avoiding it entirely deprives us of an important tool in helping our people feel closer to God’s presence. 

I was watching the 2nd season or batch of House of Cards and was interested that at the beginning of one of the episodes there was a great quote from Winston Churchill: To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often. 

The truth is that although we often associate Churchill with standing fast before Hitler and Stalin when no one else would, before those historical incidents he was a mercurial and frequent change-agent. Today he would be considered a ‘flip-flopper’. The point is he knew when to stand firm and when to change.

I’m left with thinking about my dear Uncle Vic.  If he had written that verse, he would have found a way to say the same thing with a couple less occurrences of the word 'salt.'  Perhaps he would have sprinkled one or two of them earlier or later in the chapter so that a single leaf of Romaine would not be so inundated.

All I can say is that if you meet him in the World to Come and you're lucky enough to be invited to have a heavenly dinner with him, taste the Caesar's before you salt it. 

David Lipp