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Encyclopedia Judaica 1906


By : Emil G. Hirsch Immanuel Benzinger Cyrus Adler M. Seligsohn

—Biblical Data:
Symbolic Use.
—In Rabbinical Literature and Jewish Life:
Ritual Customs.
Salt of Sodom.

—Biblical Data:

A condiment for food. From earliest times salt was indispensable to the Israelites for flavoring food. Having a copious supply in their own country, they could obtain it with little trouble. The Dead or "Salt" Sea (Gen. xiv. 3; Josh. iii. 16) holds in solution not less than 24.57 kg. of salt in 100 kg. of water, and after every flood, upon the evaporation of the water, a coarse-grained salt is left behind in the pools and ditches. Saltpits, in which salt was thus obtained, are mentioned in Zeph. ii. 9 ("mikreh melah") and in I Macc. ii. 35. The hill Jebel Usdum, situated at the southern extremity of the Dead Sea, and having a length of ten miles, is composed almost entirely of rock salt; and from it was probably procured the "Sodom salt" mentioned in the Talmud.

The various ways in which salt was used in Hebrew cookery need not be enumerated here. Although the fact is not explicitly stated in the Old Testament, salt occupied the same place as in modern cookery; it was of course a most important necessary of life (comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] xxxix. 26; comp. Job vi. 6). Eating the salt of a man means, therefore, to derive one's sustenance from him, to take pay from him or to be hired by him (Ezra iv. 14; comp. "salarium" = "salt money," "salary"). Salt is considered pleasant and wholesome for animals also (Isa. xxx. 24); and the ancient Hebrews of course knew that food was preserved by salt. Taricheæ, on the Sea of Gennesaret, indicates by its name that, in later times at least, the preparation of salted fish, a staple article of commerce, was extensively carried on there.

The medical properties of salt also seem to have been known to the Israelites at an early date. Newborn infants were rubbed with it (Ezek. xvi. 4). Though at first this may have been done for religious reasons, as a protection against demons, the significance of the custom was doubtless forgotten at the time of Ezekiel, and probably much earlier. The curative and sanitary properties of salt are probably referred to in the story related in II Kings ii. 19 et seq., according to which Elisha "heals" the poisonous spring near Jericho by throwing salt into it.

This indispensable ingredient of man's food naturally assumed a great importance in the ritual. Just as salt was absolutely necessary at meals, so it was indispensable at the sacrifice, the "food of God" (comp. "leḥem Elohaw," Lev. xxi. 22). The Law expressly says (ib. ii. 13): "Every oblation of thy meal-offering shalt thou season with salt." This prescription referred not only to the meal-offering but also to the burnt offering of animals, as appears from Ezek. xliii. 24 (comp. Josephus, "Ant." iii. 9, § 1). Salt was used also in the preparation of the showbread (comp. LXX. on Lev. xxiv. 7) and of Incense. Great quantities of salt (Ezra vi. 9, vii. 22; comp. "Ant." xii. 3, § 3) were therefore required in the Temple service. The expression "salt of the covenant" in Lev. ii. 13 shows that at the time with which the book deals salt was regarded in a symbolic sense. Originally, however, it is probable that the use of salt at a sacrifice did not arise from this conception, but from the fact that an offering was the meal of God.

The importance of salt in daily life and in the ritual explains its symbolic importance in the ceremony of the covenant. Particularly holy and inviolable obligations were designated as "salt covenants" (ib.; Num. xviii. 19; II Chron. xiii. 5). It must be borne in mind that in ancient times, as today among the Arab nomads, a meal taken in company meant temporary association among the members of the company and that a covenant was accompanied by a sacrificial meal. Consequently, as salt was always used on both occasions, it was probably taken as an especially fitting symbol of the eternal duration of such a covenant. To-day the Arab still says, "There is salt between us" (comp. Wellhausen, "Reste Arabischen Heidentums," 2d ed., pp. 124, 189; Trumbull, "The Covenant of Salt," 1899). The practice of sprinkling salt on the ruins of a doomed city may also refer to the ritual use of salt (Judges ix. 45), expressing its entire dedication to Yhwh (for parallel instances see W. R. Smith, "Rel. of Sem." 2d ed., p. 454).E. G. H. I. Be.

Symbolic Use.

—In Rabbinical Literature and Jewish Life:

Owing to the fact that salt is referred to in the Bible as symbolizing the covenant between God and Israel (see Biblical Data, above), its importance is particularly pointed out by the Rabbis. They interpret the words "a covenant of salt" (Num. xviii. 19) as meaning that salt was used by God on the occasion in question to signify that it should never be lacking from sacrifices. Thus, although it appears from Lev. ii. 13 that salt was required for meal-offerings only, the Rabbis concluded from a comparison between Num. l.c. and Num. xxv. 13 that, just as none of the sacrifices could be offered without priests, so they could not be offered without salt (Men. 19b-20a). The salt which belonged to the Temple for sacrificial purposes could be used by the priests when they ate their portion of the sacrifices, but not otherwise; this was one of the seven institutions of the bet din (Shek. vii. 6; Maimonides, "Yad," Me'ilah, viii.). As, after the destruction of the Temple, the table set for a meal was considered as an altar, the Rabbis recommended that salt should be put upon it; nor should the blessing be recited without salt. The necessity for the presence of salt is indicated by the fact that when the bread is of inferior quality a man may ask for salt between the recitation of the blessing and the partaking of the bread, while for any other purpose one is not allowed to utter a single word. But when the bread is of good quality, although salt should have been put upon the table, yet, if it is missing, one may not interrupt by asking for it between the blessing and eating (Shulhan Aruk, Orah Hayyim, 167, 5; Jacob Zausmer, "Bet Ya'aḳob," No. 168; comp. Ber. 40a). In the time of the Tosafists the placing of salt on the table was dispensed with; the bread being good, the condiment was considered unnecessary. Menahem, however, strictly observed the above-mentioned custom, declaring that when people sit at tablewithout performing any commandment ("mitzvah") Satan accuses them, and only the covenant of salt protects them (Tos. to Ber. l.c.). The custom was revived later, and to-day the hand is regularly dipped into the salt before "ha-mozeh" (Isserles, in Shulhan 'Aruk, l.c.).

Ritual Customs.

Salt is considered as the most necessary condiment, and therefore the Rabbis likened the Torah to it; for as the world could not do without salt, neither could it do without the Torah (Soferim xv. 8). A meal without salt is considered no meal (Ber. 44a). Still, salt is one of the three things which must not be used in excess (ib. 55a). It is not considered by the Rabbis as a food; thus when one makes a vow to abstain from food he may eat salt. It may not be used for an 'Erub ('Er. iii. 1).

The Rabbis recognized in salt different properties owing to which it is prominent in the ritual code. The most important one is its decomposing action on the blood; and therefore its use was recommended by the Rabbis for draining the blood from meat. Blood can not be thoroughly extracted from meat unless the latter is well salted (Hul. 113a). The laws for salting meat are given in sections 69-78 of the Shulhan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, some particulars of which may be here mentioned. The layer of salt must be neither too thin, for then it is lacking in strength, nor too thick, for then it does not adhere to the meat; and it must remain on the meat not less than twenty minutes. It has no effect on the blood of meat three days old (as the blood is then considered to have coagulated), unless the meat has been previously rinsed in water (Yoreh De'ah, 69, 3, 6, 12). Salt has no effect on liver on account of the large quantity of blood contained in the latter; still, if the liver has been salted and cooked, it may be eaten (ib. 73, 1; comp. ib. 105, 9-14). In other respects salting is like cooking (Hul. 97b); and therefore he who salts vegetables in the field makes them fit for the tithe (Ma'as. iv. 1). Salting food or vegetables is considered one of the principal labors which are forbidden on the Sabbath (Shab. 75b). To dissolve salt in water is also considered work; consequently one may not prepare a quantity of salt water on the Sabbath. Salt may not be pounded in a mortar on that day; but it may be crushed with the handle of a knife (Orah Hayyim, 321, 2, 8).

Salt of Sodom.

Salt is mentioned as a remedy for toothache (Shab. vi. 5), and women were accustomed to hold a grain of salt on the tongue in order to prevent unpleasant odors in the mouth (ib.); and on this account the Rabbis similarly recommended that salt be eaten at the conclusion of every meal, as it prevents such odors in the daytime and at night is a preventive of angina. But it must not be eaten from the thumb, for that causes the loss of children; nor from the little finger, for that causes poverty; nor from the index-finger, for that causes murder; but only from the middle finger or the ring-finger (Ber. 40a; Orah Hayyim, 179, 6). A kind of salt designated "salt of Sodom" ("melah Sedomit"), which was an ingredient of the spices burned in the Temple (Ker. 6a), was so pungent that if one put the finger from which he ate it on his eye, it might cause blindness. The Rabbis therefore instituted the washing of the hands after the meal (hul. 105b). In one respect salt is considered like hailstones or ice; so that it may complete a Mikweh and make it fit for a ritual bath (Mik. vii. 1). Salt was strewed on the step of the altar to prevent the priest from slipping ('Er. x. 14). A reference to salt as a preservative is made in the proverb: "Shake the salt off meat, and you may throw the latter to dogs" (Niddah 31a); that is to say, without salt meat is good for nothing. "When salt becomes corrupt with what is it salted?" (Bek. 8b). "The salt of money is charity" (Ket. 66b). The term "salted" is applied to a man in the sense of "quick-minded" (kid. 29b).

It has been shown above that during the Middle Ages salt was connected with certain superstitious beliefs; it may be added that these have continued up to the present time. In certain places in Russia the belief is current among Jews that if salt is thrown in a part of a house where it is not likely to be swept away, the inhabitants of that house will become poor. In England and Holland it is commonly believed that the spilling of salt brings ill luck. Salt is particularly considered as a safeguard against the evil eye. This belief existed in Germany in the beginning of the eighteenth century, as is narrated by Schudt ("Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten," ii. 385), who states that a Jewish woman who visited him advised him to hang salt and bread about his children's necks to preserve them from evil persons. This belief is especially current in Russia, where salt is put into the arba' kanfot and into children's pockets, and is thrown into the four corners of the room. There is also a saying in Russia: "Throw salt on a Gipsy as she or he leaves your house."

Bibliography: Kohut, Aruch Completum
Lampronti, Pahad Yizhak
Levy, Neuhebr. Wörterb.

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