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Covenant of Salt

I see the Torah occasionally refers to covenants of salt – such as the covenant of priesthood with Aaron’s descendants and of sovereignty with King David’s family. Why is salt mentioned? What is its significance?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your interesting observation. The Sages explain that the significance of salt is what we might expect. Salt lasts forever, preserves other foods, and (in the right quantities) makes a person healthy. Thus, God promised Aaron and his descendants the priesthood together with its dues with a covenant of salt (Numbers 18:19) – implying an eternal, unbreakable covenant, and one entirely for the benefit of its bearers (Sifri 118, brought in Rashi to that verse).

God said the same to King David and his descendants. Nathan the Prophet assured David in God’s name that the kingship would never depart from his house (II Samuel 7:16). This was later referred to as having been forged with a covenant of salt in II Chronicles 13:5.

An alternate explanation to the significance of salt is found in Targum to II Chronicles 13:5. Just as the sea can never be changed from salty to sweet, so too it is impossible that the monarchy would ever depart from David’s descendants.

A third covenant found in the Torah is with salt itself. God decreed that every sacrifice offered in the Tabernacle and Temple would be salted (Leviticus 2:13), stating that “the salt of the covenant” would never cease from the offerings.

The Midrash explains that when God originally divided the “upper waters” and the “lower waters” on the second day of creation (Genesis 1:6-8), the lower waters complained that they were doomed to the lower spheres, farther from God and the heavens. God therefore made a covenant with them that they would be offered in the Temple – in the form of sea salt which would be placed on every sacrifice (as well as in the water libations offered on Sukkot) (Rashi to Leviticus 2:13).

An interesting explanation to this was offered by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes L’Yaakov). The lower waters might have felt they were being relegated to a much lower station in the universe – to the physical realm, much more distant from God. In response, God agreed that water would regularly be offered on the Temple altar. But God didn’t take water itself, but its salt – its most physical element, which stays behind even when water does evaporate and ascend to heaven. The message to the lower waters (and to us) is that being physical does not have to make us distant from God. We can take our very physicality and use it to serve God – and it will lift us to the greatest heights.

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