Between the Lines—Korah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman


Numbers 18:19

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.


Leviticus Rabbah 24:2 

אמ' ר' יודן כת' ואתה מרום, רוממות את נותן בעולמך. נתתה כהונה לאהרן לעולם, ברית מלח עולם הוא (במדבר יח, יט). נתתה מלכות לדוד לעולם, הלא לכם לדעת כי י"י אלהי ישראל נתן המלוכה וגו' (דברי הימים ב' יג, ה). נתתה קדושה לישראל לעולם, דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם קדושים תהי

Rabbi Yudan expounded: It is written, But You are exalted (marom), O Lord, for all time.' (Ps. 92:9) [Marom implies the essence of] eternality (romemut) You give to Your world. You gave the priesthood to Aaron forever; as it says, It is an everlasting covenant of salt [before the Lord for you and your offspring as well.] (Num. 18:19) You gave sovereignty to David forever; as it says, Surely you know that the Lord God of Israel gave kingship [to David over Israel forever—to him and his sons—by a covenant of salt] (2 Chron. 13:5). You gave holiness to Israel forever; as it says, Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, [for I, the Lord your God, am holy.] (Lev. 19:2)

Ever since becoming Shabbat-observant as an adult, I have developed a wonderful admiration for salt. One simple ritual with this seemingly ordinary condiment teaches us how God has "planted within us life eternal," which is what we say when called to the Torah. The midrash above gives added context to the way that Judaism continually makes mundane moments and objects into opportunities for experiencing our sense of holiness, ultimate meaning, and purpose as Jews.

The act of sprinkling salt on challah when making hamotzi (the blessing over bread) combines the literal and figurative functions of this natural resource. Two verses before Leviticus 2:13 state that "you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God"; the passage opens by prohibiting the burning of honey and leaven as an aromatic additive to sacrifices. That injunction against fermenting agents, which represent decay, underscores the ancient origins of salt as a food preservative and a signifier of permanence. Our Sages made salt's sacred symbolism more explicit through teachings like this midrash, which demonstrates how the mineral's role as a sign of our eternal covenant with God relates to the divine command quoted at the end of the text about our aspirations for holiness.

That most of us get too much sodium in our food today only heightens my appreciation of the salt-sprinkling ritual. Might this practice serve as a new dietary standard, returning an ingredient used excessively to a condiment pinched sparingly? Caring about our lives and our covenant requires just that type of question.