Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 19 May 2012 / 26 Iyyar 5772

Take it with a Grain of Salt

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sandra

Dear Rabbi,

My grandfather, may he rest in peace, would always put salt on the bread in the prayer of hamotzi. Why do we do this? Is it on all types of bread or just challah?

Dear Sandra,

There are several reasons for dipping bread in salt after saying the blessing on the bread.

One is that people sometimes put salt on their food to give it flavor. This is a matter of taste, not Jewish law. So, if you are going to dip your food in salt throughout the meal, you should dip the first piece of bread in salt. This is a way of honoring the blessing, by making sure that the piece of bread you eat after saying the blessing is tasty. This follows the Torah idea that physical pleasure can be used as a vehicle in the service of G-d.

A second reason is to recall the idea that Man eats through the sweat of his brow. Meaning, as result of our shortcomings, we must toil for our sustenance, yet G-d, in his mercy, fulfills our needs, and we must be grateful for that when partaking of His blessing.

Another reason is that when we had the Templeand brought offerings on the altar, salt accompanied every offering. The significance of salt is that it completes other foods and enhances their taste. Also, it preserves things which would otherwise spoil. For these two reasons, the Torah tells us to salt our offerings: To offer a completed offering, and to symbolize that our offerings help preserve our relationship with G-d.

We no longer have the altar to atone for us. However, the Talmud teaches that nowadays our table is our “altar”, implying that the bread itself, as well as the food we eat with it, is viewed as an offering, since the energy we derive from it should be used to fuel our service of G-d. Also, when we share our food with the needy, our table is like an altar of offering and this atones for us. Since our table is like the altar in these ways, we try to keep salt on the table all the time.

Interestingly, our sources teach that Lot’s wife turned into salt because she was stingy towards the needy. Lothimself was a generous person, always inviting guests. His wife resented guests and discouraged them. One trick of hers was not to provide salt, a small thing which makes a big difference to guests. Therefore, she was punished by means of salt, measure for measure. We, however, put salt on the table to show our willingness to share with others the bounty G-d bestowed upon us.

The custom of dipping bread in salt applies to all bread at all times, not just challah on Shabbat. It is done right after the blessing and just before eating. When one person recites the blessing for others and then distributes separate pieces for each, he dips each piece in the salt before passing it out. Most people dip the bread in the salt three times. This is related to the idea that the numerical equivalent for bread is 78, which is three times the numerical value of G-d’s name, 26.

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