Humans tend to bring gifts to their gods. They have done it all over the world, from the beginning of history. In the Torah, the first human to offer a gift to God is Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve … and God rejects his offering. Religions help people to avoid the fear of being rejected by their gods by spelling out what gifts are and are not acceptable.
The first part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra (And It Called) is devoted to instructions about offerings for the altar. What kinds of animal and grain offerings will be acceptable to God? The first Torah portion begins by considering animals for burned offerings.
If one brings an olah from the herd, he shall bring an unblemished male; he shall bring it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting, liretzono before God. And he shall lean his hand upon the head of the olah, and it will be nirtzah for him, to atone for him. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:3-4)
olah = an offering that is completely burned, so its smoke will rise to the heavens
liretzono = to be accepted for him
nirtzah = favorably received, acceptable, counted as good (from the same root as liretzono, רצה)
After an initial review of animal offerings, the Torah gives particulars about the minchah offering: a gift of homage to God, made from grain. (See my blog post “Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver”.) Embedded in the minchah instructions is a ban on any leavening or sweetener in a burned offering:
Every homage that you bring to God you shall make without chameitz; for you shall not bring any sourdough or any devash into an offering by fire to God. (Leviticus 2:11)
chameitz = leavened bread, fermented food
devash = syrup, bee honey, fruit nectar
Leavened loaves of bread can only be brought to the sanctuary for the priests and their families to eat; they must not be burned on the altar. Fruit syrup or jam can only be brought at the annual festival of first fruits, Shavuot, and the fruit preserves were also eaten by the priests.
Why are leavened bread and syrup are banned from burned offerings? Philo of Alexandria, who lived 2,000 years ago, began a long line of Jewish commentatary comparing bread rising to a human puffing up with self-importance—the opposite of the humility needed to pay homage to God. Another view stresses the instruction in the book of Exodus/Shemot to eat unleavened matzah on Passover/Pesach in order to remember that the Israelites did not have time to let their dough leaven before escaping Egypt. Since matzah is “the bread of our affliction”, the Israelites presumably did not have time to watch bread rise during their years of slavery, either. According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphel Hirsch, leavened bread therefore represents political independence, which the Israelites achieved not by their own efforts, but only by following God’s Torah. Fruit syrup represents ownership of land where dates and other fruit trees grow naturally—another gift from God. Hirsch argued that an acceptable offering to God could only be something that the Israelites had acquired by their own efforts. (Presumably the Israelites put a lot of their own labor into making flour and tending their animals.)
I am not persuaded by either Philo or Hirsch. I suspect that the key lies in the way the ancient Israelites viewed leavening. For modern Americans, leavened bread is sweet and yeasty, and sourdough bread is an interesting variation. But the ancient Israelites had only sourdough leavening, and their word for leavened bread, chameitz, comes from the same root as the word for vinegar, chometz. In Biblical Hebrew, when something leavens or ferments itself, yitchameitz, it turns sour and sharp, whether it is flour becoming sourdough bread or grape juice becoming vinegar.
An offering that is going to straight up to God in smoke should not be sour. If we give ourselves to God in a sour mood, our offering will not be accepted.
Nor should an offering sent straight to God be sweetened, as if the donor wanted to make it more palatable to God. If we try to sweet-talk our way into God’s favor, or to adopt a sweetness that we do not feel inside, our offering will not be accepted.
After banning leaven and syrup in burned offerings, the Torah says that all offerings to God must be salted:
Every offering of your homage you shall salt with salt; you may not omit the melach of the brit of your God from your homage. You shall put melach on every offering of yours. (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:13)
melach = salt
brit = covenant, pact, alliance
Why is salt required for acceptance? Salt was not a rare commodity in Canaan; the Israelites used to quarry rock salt near the Dead Sea, which the Hebrew Bible calls the Sea of Salt. The salt quarries between that sea and the city of Sodom may be the “Valley of Salt”, the site of at least two battles in the Hebrew Bible. When God annahilates Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Lot’s wife looks back at Sodom and becomes a pillar of salt (one of many strange salt formations left by the evaporation of the Dead Sea). In Deuteronomy/Devarim Moses warns that when the Israelites worship idols in the future, God will destroy their land, and visitors will compare its barrenness to burning with sulfur and salt.
Yet the proper care of a newborn infant included bathing it in water and rubbing it with salt, according to the book of Ezekiel/Yechezkeil; and the prophet Elisha “heals” a contaminated spring with a dish of salt in 2 Kings/Melakhim. Salt is both a preservative and a condiment for food. Thus the Hebrew Bible associates salt with both death and life.
This week’s Torah portion refers to salt as a form of covenant. A covenant of salt also shows up in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar. After disposing of Korach’s threat to the rights of priests, God tells the high priest Aaron:
All holy upraised offerings that the children of Israel raise up to God, I give to you and to your sons and to your daughters with you, as a decree forever; it will be a brit melach forever; it is before God for you and your offspring with you. (Numbers/Bemidbar 18:19)
And in the second book of Chronicles, Aviyah, king of Judah, says:
Listen to me, Yaravam and all Israel! Don’t you know that God, the god of Israel, gave kingship to David over Israel forever, to him and to his sons, a brit melach? (2 Chronicles/2 Divrei Hayamim 13:4-5)
Salt apparently makes a covenant especially unbreakable and long-lasting. Many commentators attribute this to the fact that salt was the main preservative used by the Israelites. But salt was also their universal seasoning, set on the table for every meal. Eating a man’s salt was an idiom for being either his friend or his dependent. So a covenant of salt might imply not only durability, but also dependence or even friendship.
Now that we reach out to God by praying instead of by burning animals and matzah, we can apply the ideas in Leviticus about leaven, syrup, and salt in a more subtle way. All too often, when we stand before other people, we have to paste on a sweet smile. But when we stand before God, we need to abandon any false sweetness, as well as the pride and the sourness implied by leavening. And we need to be serious about life and death, offering our whole selves, and acknowledging that we all eat our salt at God’s table.