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Torah Sparks

June 12, 2010 - 30 Sivan 5770

Annual (Num. 16:1-18:32): Etz Hayim p. 860; Hertz p. 639
Triennial (Num. 17:25-18:32): Etz Hayim p. 868; Hertz p. 645
Maftir (Num. 28:9-15): Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Isaiah 66:1-24): Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944

Torah Portion Summary

Korach and his followers challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, and indeed of God Himself. Moses responds: Isn't it enough that God has given you and the other Levites special status? Do you want to be a priest as well? Datan and Aviram, members of Korach's faction but from the tribe of Reuben, challenge Moses from another direction, claiming that he has brought the Israelites from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness.

Moses tells the rebels that they are to be tested by God. They and Aaron are to bring a fire pan with incense to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. God tells Moses to instruct the rest of the community to stand back from the tents of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. The earth opens and swallows them and their households, and a heavenly fire consumes the 250 Levites offering incense.

God has made His position clear, but the Israelites continue to blame Moses and Aaron for their problems, claiming they are responsible for the deaths of Korach and his followers. Yet again, God angrily threatens to wipe out the Israelites. At Moses' direction, Aaron runs into the community and offers incense, putting an end to the plague that had broken out, killing more than 14,000.

God instructs Moses to offer one more demonstration. Each of the tribal chieftains is to bring a staff inscribed with his name. These, along with Aaron's staff representing the tribe of Levi, are to be placed in the Tent of Meeting. On the following day, it is discovered that Aaron's staff has produced flowers and almonds, confirming that he is God's chosen priest.

God speaks to Aaron, confirming the role of the priests and the Levites. The gifts and tithes to be given to the priests and Levites are described.

1. Please Pass the Salt

All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters who are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for you and your offspring as well. (Numbers 18:19)

  1. He made a covenant with Aaron with a thing that is wholesome and lasting and that keeps other things wholesome. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. The world can live without wine, but the world cannot live without water. The world can live without pepper, but the world cannot live without salt. (Talmud Yerushalmi Horayot 3:6)
  3. The Torah is compared to salt, the Mishnah to pepper, and the Talmud to spices. Just as it is impossible for the world to be without salt, without pepper, and without spices, and the rich man provides himself with the three of them, so it is impossible for the world to be without Torah, without Mishnah, and without Talmud. (Massekhet Sofrim 15:6)
  4. Just as salt causes an item that is pickled to decrease in size, yet at the same time ensures that it will not be spoiled for a lengthy period of time, the same is true when one brings different offerings. The person may lose something belonging to him, but giving these offerings helps ensure that he will keep that which is his. (Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno, 1821-1893, Poland)
  5. After the blessing of ha-motzi a little salt is sprinkled on the piece of bread before it is eaten. For this a number of reasons are offered:
    1. We sprinkle salt on our bread to emphasize the similarity between the table at which we eat andthe altar of Temple times, and between our food and the sacrifices. The Bible states: “And with all your meal-offerings you shall offer salt” (Leviticus 2:13).
    2. Salt reminds us that the poor should be welcome guests at a Jewish table. According to the Midrash, the people of Sodom were severely punished for their inhospitality by being turned into blocks of salt.
    3. Salt reminds us of the sin-offerings offered on the altar in the Temple. The Hebrew word machal, to forgive, is composed of the same letters as melach, salt.
    4. Salt reveals the wonderful way in which God has created the world. The scientific fact that salt can change its state, and after being dissolved in water it can be crystallized into salt once more, was known in Talmudic times and seemed to the rabbis to highlight the wisdom of the Creator.
    5. Salt is a common and inexpensive ingredient. When people are surrounded with plenty, they should give a thought to more austere ways of living and remember that food is a gift from God.
    6. Salt and bread must go together because the letters comprising the word melach - salt - are identical with the letters of lechem - bread.
    7. In the manufacture of salt, two opposite forces are at work: water and fire. Salt is crystallized from water boiled at high temperatures. Water irrigates the wheat fields while the fire of the sun dries and ripens the crops. Both join, at God's command, in the benevolent act of producing the fruit of the earth.
    (Rabbi Abraham Chill, The Minhagim, pp. 85-86

Sparks for Discussion

In the ancient world salt was extremely valuable (the word salary is from the same root) because it was the most effective food preservative available. Clearly this is how Rashi understands “covenant of salt.” What do the other commentators add to your understanding?

Rabbi Chill lists seven reasons for the custom of sprinkling salt on bread or dipping the bread in salt before eating it. Which do you find meaningful? Why?

2. Give and Take

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Levites and say to them: When you receive from the Israelites their tithes, which I have assigned to you as your share, you shall set aside from them one-tenth of the tithe as a gift to the Lord. This shall be accounted to you as your gift. As with the new grain from the threshing floor or the flow from the vat, so shall you on your part set aside a gift for the Lord from all the tithes that you receive from the Israelites; and from them you shall bring the gift for the Lord to Aaron the priest. (Numbers 18:25-28)

  1. Just as the Israelites set apart from their threshing floors and from their winepresses so shall you set apart from your tithes, for that is your inheritance. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. The Levite, although he gets no direct share in the land, does get a fixed considerable share of the most important produce of the land as his share. . . . The tithe is taken to be . . . a wage for their service at the Sanctuary. The nation owes it to them for taking over and doing the service which otherwise it would have to do. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  3. “As your share (elsewhere: inheritance)” In place of your share, and therefore it is necessary for you to tithe as if it had come to you by inheritance. (Hizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah), mid-13th century, France)
  4. Past any doubt, the Lord set the entire tribe of Levi apart from the Israelite community for His continual service. However, within the tribe itself, one of them was chosen to be the head, the chief officer, and prince - he and his descendents for all time. He was holy, consecratedwithin the tribe, to stand and minister in the Lord's presence continually, while the rest of the tribe was made subordinate to him to assist in the service... Therefore, since the kohanim are the principal element at the Temple in the service of our God, they merited to receive twenty-four gifts, which were explicitly granted them in Scripture. . . . Yet in order that they [the Levites] might know and realize that all their share of good fortune, and the share of their brethren, was by virtue of the service to the Lord, they were commanded to give from all that they would take from the Israelites, a tenth part to the great ministering servants [the kohanim]. Then they would realize in their heart that there are those superior to them, while the One superior to them all is the Guardian of all. Moreover, in this lies merit, honor, and elevation for the Levites, that their names might not be lacking from [the list of those who observed] the mitzvah of the tithe when they shared in the crops of grain; and let their [the Israelites'] sons not say to their sons, “You attained grain, be we, a mitzvah.” (Sefer HaHinukh, attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, 13th century, Spain)
  5. Even a person who himself survives on charity should give charity. (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 248:1)

Sparks for Discussion

Why do you think the Levites, who were supported by tithes, were required to tithe to the priests from the tithes they received? Was it simply the same “income tax” that applied to all Israelites except the priests? Were they required to pay their fair share for the priests' service in the sanctuary? Was it intended to reinforce the religious hierarchy? Was it parallel to, or could it have been the source of, the halachah that even those supported by tzedakah must themselves give tzedakah (and why do you think this is the case)?

Virtually every synagogue waives dues payments for members with limited income and those experiencing financial difficulties. Do you think members excused from paying dues should be asked to make a token payment, perhaps $18 a year? Should they be asked to contribute volunteer time? Why? Should fund-raising be focused on those who can make substantial contributions, or should it strive for 100 percent participation, even if the individual amounts are small?

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