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  1. Salt and Kabbala
  2. Salt Properties

Adapted from Likutei Torah and Sefer HaSichos by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]

Salt and Kabbala

“…do not omit the salt of your G-d’s covenant from your meal-offerings—on all your sacrifices offer salt” (Leviticus 3:13).

Can the plain be eaten without salt? Job asks rhetorically (6:6). Salt brings out the taste in other foods. Ironically, salt itself is not pleasing to the palate; yet it can make another food tasty.

The reason for this is as follows: Salt is a derivative of water. It is formed by the fiery beating of the sun upon the water. Water is Chessed, kindness; salt is Gevurah, severity. (Hence the sharpness of salt.)

[It is an axiom of kabbalistic thought that every physical substance is in essence the devolved form of a higher spiritual entity. Thus salt does not only “symbolize” or “represent” the supernal realm of Gevurah, it is Gevurah in its physical manifestation.]

Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in Eitz Chaim that what is Gevurah on one level creates Chessed for the level immediately beneath it. Thus Gevurah of Chochmah becomes Chessed of Binah.

[Chochmah and Binah, wisdom and understanding, are the first of the ten sefiros.]

So salt on its own—on its own level—is Gevurah, bitter. But when it descends to a lower level—enters the substance of another food—it becomes Chessed and grants taste to that food.  

[Another point about salt: Salt does not truly enter the substance that it affects; it brings out the natural flavor of the food. When you eat a properly salted food you are not tasting food with salt; you are tasting a food whose natural flavor has been brought out by salt. For example:] When a person separates the edible from the inedible, he does not “enter” the substance that he is sifting. Rather, the sifting process is achieved by him [from the outside]. Similarly, in the process of making cheese, the rennet does not “enter” the cheese. The taste of the rennet is not present in the cheese. Yet despite its detachment, the rennet separates the various substances and creates the cheese. 

(Salt is the also the embodiment of the root of all severities and therefore has the capacity to sweeten judgments. It is for this reason that salt must always be present on one’s table as an antidote to misfortune. For as is known, severities can only be sweetened by their root. [The example given for this is “The wood for the axe that will chop down the trees of the forest is taken from the forest itself.”])

The Salt of Torah

In the realm of Torah, “salt” is Kabbala, the inner dimension of Torah.

Unlike the legal aspects of Torah, which can be completely understood and “tasted,” Kabbala is hidden and concealed. It cannot be truly “tasted” and assimilated by the human mind. It remains detached [like salt and rennet which achieve their function without truly entering the item].

But there is an advantage to both aspects of Torah. The advantage of the legal aspects is that man is able to fully digest Divine wisdom as it is manifest on the physical plane in the form of the laws of the Torah. This level is called Chochmah, wisdom, where the human mind can become one with Divine wisdom.

Kabbala, which speaks of supernal realities, is beyond Chochmah. This is its advantage—and its disadvantage. Because it is beyond Chochmah, it cannot be fully absorbed by the human mind. Conversely, because of its transcendence its effect on its student is much more powerful.

In the words of Avot d’Rebbe Nattan (ch. 29, end):

He who possesses knowledge of Midrash [which in a wider sense refers to Kabbala as well] but does not possess knowledge of the laws has not tasted the taste of Chochmah.

He who possesses knowledge of the laws but does not possess knowledge of Midrash has not tasted the taste of yirat chet [literally, “fear of sin,” repulsion for evil].

Without knowledge of the law, one does not gain a taste of Chochmah—G-d’s wisdom. For it is only through study of the law that one can truly grasp and absorb Divine wisdom. With Kabbala or Midrash, one does not truly digest the essence of the thought.

On the other hand, although in studying Kabbala one perceives only a ray of the actual ideas, nevertheless, this ray stems from the inner dimension, the soul of Torah and has the capacity to affect the spiritual perspective of its student.

So the law of Torah is the bread and meat. Midrash, Kabbala, is the salt, which grants taste to the food [and neutralizes negativity].

Hence the Talmudic parable (Shabbat 31a):

A man said to his agent, “Bring a kor[2] of wheat to the attic for me.” He went and brought it up for him. Afterwards, the man said to his agent, “Did you mix into the wheat a kav of chumton [soil with a high salt content used to preserve grain]?” “No,” said the agent. The man said, “It would have been better if you had never brought the wheat.”

The salt preserves the wheat and ensures that it does not spoil. Without the salt, the wheat can be useless. Similarly, Torah study without fear of heaven, which is brought on by study of Kabbala, is susceptible to corruption.

(“Wheat” in Hebrew is chitah, ches-tes-hey, numerically equivalent to 22, alluding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, with which the Torah is written. Additionally, the giving of the Torah is celebrated on Shavuot with the offering of the first produce of the wheat harvest (Ex. 34:22).)

Hence the necessity for the study of both dimensions of Torah: the hidden and the revealed.

[Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Likutei Torah, biur lo sashbis.]

Salt Properties

Salt is a preservative. Thus G-d’s everlasting covenant with Aharon is associated with salt (an everlasting covenant of ‘salt’”—Numbers 18:19). As Rashi explains, “G-d made a covenant with Aharon with something that is “healthy,” enduring and which preserves others…salt, which never spoils.”

Arizal points out the connection between salt and the kohanic blessing:

Melach, salt, is numerically equivalent to 78, which is 3x26 (3x the Divine name y-h-v-h, which equals 26). Similarly, the kohanic blessing contains the Divine name three times: May y-h-v-h bless you…may y-h-v-h shine His countenance…may y-h-v-h raise his countenance… These blessings keep the world in existence and are therefore compared to salt, which sustains other items.

Another characteristic of salt is that it cuts down and destroys negative things. It has this capacity because it stems from Gevurah (severity) of holiness. Thus the Divine name used in the verse regarding the covenant of salt is Elokim (“bris elokecha”), which is the Divine name that embodies Gevurah. It can therefore transform and “sweeten” the negative forms of severity, since severity is sweetened by its root.

The waters of Jericho were therefore cured by the prophet Elisha through salt. And when negativity is cured or sweetened through its source, the change is internal and hence much more powerful. [Just as rehabilitation or psychotherapy is most effective when it employs the already present forces within the patient to achieve the cure.] (By contrast, Moses’ sweetening of the “mei marah,” the bitter waters, was achieved through overwhelming the negativity with Chessed (kindness).)

Salt also has healing powers. Thus Tikunei Zohar (54a) points out that one of the permutations of the word melach is chalam, which connotes strengthening and healing (see Job 39:4 and Isaiah 38:16).

The sacrifice therefore had to include salt. For in the spiritual “sacrifice,” man’s approach toward G-d, all of the properties of salt must be present. His approach must have the staying power of salt—it cannot be a transient affair. Furthermore, it must involve and transform the animal soul—so that it is not only overwhelmed and silenced but actually experiences an internal change: the sweetening of the severities through their root.

[Adapted and summarized by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Sefer Hasichos 5749 pp. 337-8.]

[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."

[2] A kor is the volume of 4,320 eggs, or thirty seah. Estimated to be between 248 and 430 liters. A kav is the volume of 24 eggs, or one sixth of a seah (144 eggs).

Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication Society.



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