Judaism has a love-hate relationship with salt. In the Book of Leviticus, we read that salt was a key ingredient in offering sacrifices: “And every sacrifice of your meal offering shall you season with salt; nor shall you allow the salt of the covenant of your God to be lacking from your meal offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:13). In the Book of Psalms, salt is associated with friendship. We season bread with salt after reciting “Hamotzi” (some do this to challah especially on Shabbat). The primary reason given for this practice is that the Talmudic rabbis noted that our dinner table is akin to the Biblical altar upon which sacrifices were offered, and we are called on to replicate the practice associated with sacrifices mentioned in Leviticus. But another good reason for the practice of salting bread, and other foods as well, is that salt brings out the flavor in our food, and we should try to heighten the pleasure in eating.
Salt is also depicted as something negative and unwanted. Among Israel’s bodies of water is Yam Ha-Melach, the “Salt Sea,” whose English name is the Dead Sea, so named because the high salt content makes it impossible for any marine life to live in it. And in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read of the destruction of the evil city of Sodom. As God was destroying the city and its inhabitants, he instructed Lot and his wife not to look back as they fled for safety. But Lot’s wife did not listen and she turned around to see what was happening, only to be transformed into a pillar of salt. The narrative implies that salt is a consequence of destruction. Some commentaries depict Lot’s wife as being evil herself, while others propose that she was a person who could not change. Salt is a preservative, so turning into a pillar of salt can represent being unwilling or unable to change one’s evil ways and improve one’s character.
The Talmudic sages mention the “Salt of Sodom” (Melach Sedomit) suggesting that salt represents the evil, self-centered and callous attitudes and behavior of the residents of Sodom. In fact, they instituted a custom, little known and not widely practiced among non-Orthodox Jews, of washing at the end of a Shabbat meal as well as at the beginning. The practice is known as Mayim Acharonim, or “Final Waters,” and is performed without saying a blessing. But there is a ritual object devoted to performing the ritual. A miniature bowl with water and a matching pitcher are placed on the table. Before reciting Birkat Ha-Mazon (the blessing after eating), one rinses away the salt that accumulated on the fingertips while eating with a small amount of water from the pitcher.
By way of this practice, our tradition reminds us to strive to purify ourselves from the worst of human behavior—greed, selfishness, insensitivity, callousness—the very characteristics that, according to Biblical legend, caused God to wipe out the Sodomites in the first place. By washing our fingertips at the end of the meal, by washing away the “Salt of Sodom,” we are gently reminded to reach for holiness in our daily lives.
There are a lot of good reasons to have a low-salt or a salt-free diet. In this parasha, and in the ritual practice of Mayim Acharonim, the Talmudic sages advised that we have a salt-free soul as well.