The Most Important Ingredient (Salt)


Adapted from a sermon delivered at KJ on Shabbat Vayera, November 12, 2022

A while back, a situation necessitated that my family eat in a non-kosher venue. We spoke with the maître d’ about what he could bring us, especially for the children.  After going through some details and possibilities, he remarked, “One thing you can be absolutely certain about; I have been through the entire kitchen, and all the salt we use here – all of it – is kosher salt.” 

Of course, that has nothing to do with the kashrut of the salt. It is the name for the type of salt used for koshering meat; some decades ago the salt companies marketed it to the general public as “kosher salt” and it became a hit with cooks.

Salt is probably the single most important ingredient in the kitchen because it does so much for food. It preserves foods (think salted or brined meats). Salt as a preservative has been known for millennia – since at least 2000 BCE in Egypt. And when it comes to flavor, if used properly, it does not make food salty – it makes the food taste better. Samin Nosrat, in her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, recounts a story of when she first apprenticed in a restaurant kitchen and was tasked with making polenta. She labored over it, stirring vigorously so it would not burn, and brought it to her chef to taste.  “It needs more salt,” he told her. She sprinkled a little salt in, but still it needed more. She writes, “This time he marched me back to the pot and added not one but three enormous palmfuls of kosher salt. The perfectionist in me was horrified…Three palmfuls!” The chef “grabbed spoons and together we tasted. The corn was somehow sweeter, the butter richer. All of the flavors were more pronounced.” Salt made the food better.

 In Parashat Vayeira, Lot and his family were being saved from Sodom, a city facing certain destruction, and were instructed not to turn back. Yet against those orders, Lot’s wife looked back. As a punishment, she was transformed into a pillar of salt. It’s a perplexing command and an even more perplexing punishment. First, why should she not have looked back to see what was happening, and second, how did the punishment fit the crime - why turn into salt?

Rashi cited the midrash. Back in Sodom, when angels arrived as guests, Lot told her to offer them salt, and she refused. She said to Lot, “Do you mean to introduce this bad custom into our city?”

 בְּמֶלַח חָטְאָה וּבְמֶלַח לָקְתָה.

By salt she sinned, and by salt she was punished.  

But this remains perplexing - why is giving salt to guests a bad custom? Furthermore, the punishment is still way out of proportion.

Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, 13th century) suggested that she had little faith; Lot’s wife wanted to see if the city had really been destroyed. Perhaps she wanted to go back, as Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (19th century) suggested:

הצטערה על ביתה ועל נכסיה שהשאירה אחריה

She regretted leaving her home and her possessions she had left there.

She longed to go back; in fact, she never wanted to leave Sodom. She wished to preserve her past, what she always knew and had and been comfortable with. She was not prepared to look ahead to the future, to move on to what had to come next. And because she was fixated on the past, she could not grow. It is good to remember the past and allow our past experiences to strengthen us, but longing to return to the past simply because it is comfortable is not how God wanted his new people to begin its journey. Avraham understood that; he learned things from his home, Haran, and from Terach his father, but he understood when it was time to move on.  At this moment, Lot understood it too, but his wife did not. And that was her great crime and why she became salt.

Salt contains within it a dialectic. We put salt on food and it keeps it longer; simultaneously, it improves the flavor. Salt perpetuates the past, but it also enhances the taste – it makes for a better future. 

The sacrifices in the Temple reflected this dual nature of salt. Sefer HaChinuch suggested two reasons for why we put salt on all sacrifices. First, it preserves the meat, and symbolically, we hope our sacrifices will preserve us for good lives as well. Second, food tastes better with salt, and we wish to prepare our sacrifices in the best way possible. Salt preserves and it uplifts. 

And those are the same two reasons why we put salt on our challah on Shabbat. First, just as there was salt on the sacrifices and on the altar of the Beit Hamikdash, there is salt on the altar of our homes, the dinner table. We preserve our past practices through salting our challah. The other reason is simply Oneg Shabbat: It makes the bread taste better and thus increases our enjoyment of the present meal.

Salt preserves and improves, sustains and enhances. Lot’s wife did not give her guests salt to add to their food. Surely she preserved her own food with it, but someone of her mindset and perspective could not fathom using salt for its future-oriented purpose of making the food taste better. Her goal was to preserve life in Sodom the way it was; she said, “do not introduce this bad custom into our city!” Do not think about making a better future, do not be forward thinking.

In this way, salt is a microcosmic metaphor for Jewish life. How do we preserve the past while making our future better? In light of this, God’s covenant with the Kings of Israel was a covenant of salt. The book of Chronicles recounts, 

…ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נָתַן מַמְלָכָה לְדָוִיד עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל לְעוֹלָם לוֹ וּלְבָנָיו בְּרִית מֶלַח׃

“...the LORD God of Israel gave David kingship over Israel forever—to him and his sons—by a covenant of salt.”

That is the king’s role and the role of leadership: Preserve the past; make for a better future. 

And this is the guiding question for Jewish survival and for the flourishing of our people. How do we preserve our traditions, our Torah, Halakha, our eternal values, while making them relevant – tasty, metaphorically speaking – to future generations? If it is not tasty, they will not be interested.  

Generations of Jewish leaders did just that. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American religious leaders began preaching sermons and making synagogue announcements in English rather than Portuguese or Yiddish. At the same time in Germany, Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch developed Torah im Derekh Eretz - he preached and wrote books about Jewish practices and why they were relevant to the then modern German Jew. In the twentieth century, rabbis such as our own Joseph Lookstein devised an orthodox service that was honorable, respectable, decorous, and meaningful to the sophisticated Jew. He remarked, in a speech to the New York Board of Rabbis, "In the synagogue, in the service, in the character of the rabbi, and even his appearance,  in the language of the sermon, in a sense of organization and  solidarity, in the establishment of modern . . . educational, recreational and welfare institutions, we have demonstrated in traditional  Judaism that we are capable of adaptation to the new world." These leaders did not belittle the past or depart from tradition, yet they succeeded in making Judaism appealing to their contemporaries. It is now our turn in the twenty-first century to find our “salt” - what can we do to preserve the past and improve the future? 

Cookbook author James Beard famously remarked, “Where would we be without salt?” Indeed, where would we be without salt?



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