Leviticus is full of substances. Between its detailed account of the sacrifices and its nasty catalog of impurities, this is a book that is blazing with fire, dripping with blood, flaking with skin, and rotting with mold. There is flesh and fat, oil and grain, ashes and smoke, water and wine.
And so, we will not be surprised to find in Leviticus the mention of that most familiar of minerals: salt.
You shall season your every meal offering with salt… (Leviticus 2:12)
וְכָל–קָרְבַּן מִנְחָתְךָ, בַּמֶּלַח תִּמְלָח
What is surprising, however, is the second part of that verse:
… you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of the covenant with your God.
וְלֹא תַשְׁבִּית מֶלַח בְּרִית אֱלֹקיךָ, מֵעַל מִנְחָתֶךָ
Salt of the covenant? What covenant? It seems unlikely that this is a reference to the great covenant forged between God and the Children of Israel, for that one already has its famous symbols: the tablets from Sinai; the Sabbath; the circumcision rite. So instead, the commentators begin to wonder if there might be some other covenant represented by salt.
Rashi’s answer, as usual, is the most intriguing:
A covenant was sealed with salt, from the six days of creation. For the lower waters were promised they would be offered on the altar, in the form of salt.
שהברית כרותה למלח מששת ימי בראשית, שהובטחו המים התחתונים ליקרב במזבח במלח
This requires a bit of unpacking. The covenant in question, it seems, was made between God and water. The reference to “lower waters” comes from the opening chapter of Genesis, on the second day of Creation, when God creates the sky, as follows:
God made the sky by separating the water under the sky and the water above the sky, and it was so. (Gen. 1:7)
וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים, אֶת–הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי–כֵן.
So now there are upper waters (in the clouds, maybe?) and lower waters (the oceans, seas, lakes, etc.), and according to Rashi, the lower waters refused to be taken down until they were promised they would eventually be brought back up. This return happens in the form of salt, which is extracted from the ocean, seasons the offerings, and then travels upward in smoke.
We assume that Rashi is basing this narrative on a Midrash, although strangely, no one is able to identify the source. There is another Midrash, however, that adds some emotional color to this story of divided waters:
Rabbi Berechya said: When the lower waters were separated, they were weeping. (Genesis Rabbah 5:4)
אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה, לֹא פֵּרְשׁוּ הַמַּיִם הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים מִן הָעֶלְיוֹנִים אֶלָּא בִּבְכִיָּה
The waters now are not just jostling for high position. They are crying like a family being torn apart. The lower waters long to go up in order to be reunited with their other half.
The great Jewish philosopher of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loew – the ‘Maharal’- in his super-commentary on Rashi, explains it this way:
There is, in this Midrash, a great secret. For everything always wants to to be raised up. As it says in the Talmud, ‘we increase in holiness and never decrease.’ So when the lower waters were separated from the upper waters, and turned into low things, this was the opposite of the order of creation and existence, where everything is always longing to be raised. Therefore, they refused to be divided until God promised them that they would be offered on the altar, and finally achieve elevation.
ויש במדרש הזה דבר נעלם מאוד, לפי שכל הדברים תמיד הם הולכים להעלות, ומעלין בקודש ולא מורידים (ברכות כח. ) , ומים תחתונים נבדלו מן עליונים ונעשו תחתונים, וזהו הפך סדר הבריאה והמציאות, שהולך הכל להתעלות תמיד. ולפיכך, לא היו נבדלים מהם עד שהבטיח השם יתברך אותם להיות קרבים על המזבח, שיקנו ההתעלות
Here is a vibrant, enchanted, picture of the world. Everything is reaching up! Everything is seeking elevation! The whole world is filled with yearning and aspiration, looking toward the heavens, demanding to be taken up.
But more than that, what the lower waters are longing for is to be reunited with the upper waters. All longing for elevation is actually a longing for one’s other half. And, conversely, all longing for love is a longing for elevation.
And so we, too, are like those lower waters. We are yearning for an experience of completeness, for the feeling of transcendence that comes from finding the one we have been searching for. When we lay our offerings upon the altar – or, today, our slices of challah on the table – and sprinkle them with salt, we are calling on God to honor this covenant, and bring us back to our upper waters.
Let us all be reunited with our other half. Let us be raised up by love.