The early chapters of the book of Leviticus deal with the details of the various sacrifices and offerings that are to be brought in the Tabernacle and, after entering Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of the discussion of the meal-offering, the following rules are stated.
“All meal-offerings that you bring to God are not to me made leavened, for all yeast [heb. se’or – alt. trans. ‘sourdough’ or ‘leaven’] and all honey you shall not burn from them a fire-offering to God. You shall bring them as a first [fruit-] offering to God but they shall not be placed upon the altar as a pleasing fragrance. You shall salt all your meal-offerings with salt and you shall not omit salt from [being placed] upon your meal-offerings. On all your offerings you shall bring salt.” – Leviticus. 2:11-13
The above passage relates three laws. No leavened offerings are to be brought. No honey is to be included in any offering. All offerings must include salt.
Maimonides (12th century), in the Guide of the Perplexed (section III, chs. 45-46), asserts that many of the laws regarding the sacrifices were commanded in order to contradict and counteract the beliefs and practices of idolatry. Maimonides’ comment on the above passage from Leviticus – consistent with his overall approach – follows.
“Inasmuch as the idolaters offered only leavened bread and made many offerings of sweet things and seasoned their sacrifices with honey, as is generally recognized in the books that I have mentioned to you, and thus no salt was to be found in any of their offerings, He, may He be exalted, forbade offering up any leaven or any honey and commanded that salt always be offered: ‘with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt’” (Guide III, 46)
Maimonides’ comment is certainly interesting as an answer to the basic question of why we are so commanded. That said, his comment leads us to another more fundamental question. Why did the pagans bring leavened sacrifices and honey-sweetened sacrifices? Why did they refrain from including salt in any of their offerings? What is the theological point of these idolatrous practices – a point that is being rejected by the Torah?
Leaven plays an important role in Jewish practice. Most notably, by its omission on Passover. The Torah forbids the eating of leaven on Passover because our ancestors ate unleavened bread in Egypt. Furthermore, the Passover offering is required to be eaten together with unleavened bread. Does it really matter that our ancestors ate unleavened bread in Egypt? They probably ate a lot of other things that we do not commemorate as well. If they had somehow managed to leaven their bread, would that fact change the important details of the Exodus story?
Consider the difference between unleavened and leavened bread. They have the same basic ingredients – flour and water. The difference between them is that the unleavened bread did not have time to rise. In fact, matzah – the unleavened bread that we eat on Passover – is considered leavened and unkosher for Passover if it is not baked within eighteen minutes from the time the water came into contact with the flour. Matzah is rushed and undeveloped. It is uncomplicated. Leaven takes its sweet time. Baking bread is one of the most time-consuming processes of all food preparation. A slave can not take the time to bake his own bread.
Matza, unleavened bread, symbolizes the idea of humility and simplicity. All meal offerings in the temple must be unleavened because these are the traits with which we must come before God.
Salt and honey are both flavor enhancers. However, the ways that they enhance flavor could not be more different. Honey doesn’t actually enhance the flavor of the food it is added to. It merely adds the flavor of honey. Like the line from Mary Poppins, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down,” honey and sugar simply mask the flavor of the other food with the addition of sweetness. Salt, on the other hand, rather than masking flavor, actually enhances the flavor of the food to which it is added. Salt draws out flavors from other foods. A related quality of salt is that is draws out the inner essence of whatever it is added to. For example, raw meat, when salted, will secrete blood stored inside it.
To sum up this point: Honey enhances flavor by masking it. Salt enhances flavor by drawing out more of the essence of the food to which it is added.
The Hebrew word for “offering” or “sacrifice” is korban. The Hebrew root of korban means “near.” Etymologically, the word korban literally means “that which draws near.” In other words, the purpose and function of the temple offerings is to draw the worshipper, the one bringing the offering, closer to God.
This was not the purpose of pagan sacrifice. Pagans had no interest in drawing close to their gods. Their goal in offering sacrifices was to appease the gods and thereby avoid their wrath. They offered beautiful baked breads overlayed with sweetness to please the gods with their beauty. Pagan offerings emphasized aesthetic, surface qualities.
By telling us that all offerings must include salt and that no offerings may include honey, the Torah teaches us a powerful lesson about our own worship of God. Our approach to God must never involve masking and covering up who we really are. All our offerings to God must include salt. When we approach God in prayer and worship, when we attempt to draw ourselves closer to Him, our approach to Him must be an effort to draw out more of our own authentic essence. What we are feeling inside, who we really are, must honestly emerge and express itself in our worship.
Similarly, all meal offerings were unleavened. Simple. Humble. The puffed-up external beauty of leavened bread is inappropriate for our korban– our worshipful approach to God.
What was true of the worship in the Tabernacle must be true of our worship as well. Are we masking who we really are with a surface level of sweetness, or are we reaching inward to draw out our authentic selves, as we approach God in prayer and worship? Have we allowed spiritual leaven to puff up our egos, or do we come before God with unleavened humility?
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the “Shoulder to Shoulder” podcast.