In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
We move to a new book of the Torah, Vayikra or Leviticus. It is structurally substantially differently than Bereshit or Shemot, being largely a description of the Temple rites and the priests duties. In the first parshah we are introduced to several sacrifices.
You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt.
There are many Talmudic passages associated with this verse, ranging from halachic expansions of the text, to using this verse as an illustration of interpretative principles, and to an allegorical interpretation. We’ll look closely at the allegorical interpretation, which forms the basis of the mystical commentaries.
An interesting characteristic of this verse is that it goes from general to specific to general.
General -> Specific -> General
Offering -> Offering of Meal -> All your offerings
The principle they derive is that any offering which is similar to a meal-offering must have the same requirements (Menachot 20a:15).
In the tractate on blessings we see a different kind of interpretation.
And that is the statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, as Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The word covenant is used with regard to salt, and the word covenant is used with regard to afflictions. The word covenant is used with regard to salt, as it is written: “The salt of the covenant with your God should not be excluded from your meal-offering; with all your sacrifices you must offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13). And the word covenant is used with regard to afflictions, as it is written: “These are the words of the covenant” (Deuteronomy 28:69). Just as, in the covenant mentioned with regard to salt, the salt sweetens the taste of the meat and renders it edible, so too in the covenant mentioned with regard to suffering, the suffering cleanses a person’s transgressions, purifying him for a more sublime existence.
Salt is an allegory for the covenant. The covenant, like salt, purifies and tenderizes. We’ll see that this allegory is expanded and the dual nature of salt is explored.
Nachmanides provides a mystical expansion of the allegory:
Nachmanides (Ramban), 13th century, Spain, Jerusalem, Akka
You shall not cease to salt the offering, it is the covenant of your God. “Because a covenant was made during creation, assuring the subterranean waters that on the altar would be offered salt [from the sea] and a libation of water during the festival [of Sukkoth].” … And because there is a sacrificial covenant, the Torah also uses this covenant as a model for other covenants, as both the priestly covenant (Numbers 18:19) and the Davidic covenant (2 Chronicles 13:5) are called `covenant of salt’ because they are upheld just as the sacrificial covenant of salt. … I am of the opinion that the significance is that the salt is water, which by the power of the sun that comes is made into salt, while the water saturates the Earth, impregnates it and makes plants flourish. Afterwards, salt cuts through every place that is not seeded and does not flourish. This covenant is a part of all of these processes, and the water and fire come in it. … “it is an eternal covenant of salt,” because the covenant of salt is in the world upheld. And I have already taught (Ramban on Exodus 31:13) to understand from our words in other places this exact phrase: “it is an eternal covenant.”
Salt is both of the sea and the sun. (Salt was extracted from seawater by spreading the water in shallow evaporation pools.) It is essential to life and precious. It reflects something about Creation itself.
Recall that in the ancient and medieval worlds, salt was an expensive product, and was sometimes used as a currency.
Efraim of Lumshits, 16th century, Poland
[Leviticus 2:13 was stated] in order to proclaim the Holy One ruler over the opposites that exist in the world and that cause many to leave [the faith] for athesism [literally, epikratos] when they say that two opposites could not have arisen from one beginning. For salt, in its taste, is [simulataneously] one thing and its opposite, for it contains the power of fire and warmth but is the product of water, so that the sages of the Kabbalah say that it corresponds to both the attributes of judgment and compassion. Therefore, it is called “the covenant of your God,” for by this offering they make a covenant with the Eternal to proclaim divine rule over opposites.
Now, all the offerings, except for those of the priests, were [partially] eaten by the priests, and this is like charity, which is compared to salt that keeps and preserves flesh, so too salt [involves] the loss of money, while the charity [that accompanies] the sacrifice is greater than the sacrifice itself, as it says, “Doing justice and charity is more acceptable to the Eternal than sacrifice” [Proverbs 231:3]. On this it says, therefore, “And every meal offering of yours you shall season with salt,” for salt is that which goes over every offering and is “more acceptable to the Eternal than sacrifice” [itself].
But the plain meaning of “with all your offerings” is that it acts as a preservative of meat.
In Jewish mysticism the diversity of Creation, but its fundamental unity is a key contemplative question. In addition, the way in which categories are often constructed as binary opposites, the duality of thought, seems to a pose a problem for believing that everything is rooted in One God.
For Efraim, the nature of salt shows how duality can be a unity. It serves to symbolize, in its practical production and use, the covenant underlying Creation — that there is purpose and meaning in Creation.
The borrowed Greek term, Epikoros, which originally referred to Epicurean philosophy, is a general rabbinic term for atheism. In the ancient world Epicurean and Stoic philosophies were conflicting approaches to understanding the world. Epicureans viewed the world as ruled by chance, the random movement of atoms, while Stoics believed there was underlying purpose and meaning.
The following passage, which is attributed Epicurus gives a flavor of the thought:
God, he says, either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?
That there is evil in the world leads Epicurus to conclude there is no God. For Jewish mystics the appearance of duality — in their terms justice and compassion — is a challenge for us find what unifies them.