Every time I’m invited for a Shabbat meal, I notice that the host dips the bread into salt before serving it. At first I thought it was just a flavor thing, but then I saw it done in multiple homes. What’s the reason for this?
Your initial assumption was actually (partially) right. Bread can be bland. We want to make a blessing over the tastiest bread, so we add salt before partaking. Based on this, from a purely halachic perspective, if you are eating bread that is made of fine flour or is otherwise tasty (and modern challah certainly qualifies), you don’t need to dip it into salt.
Nevertheless, the custom is to always dip bread into salt—not only on Shabbat. Why?
Your Table Is an Altar
In describing his vision of the altar to be placed in the Third Temple, Ezekiel says, “The altar was wood, three cubits high and two cubits long . . . and he spoke to me, ‘This is the table that is before the L‑rd.’” Note that the verse starts off calling it an altar, but then refers to it as a table.
The Talmud explains: When the Temple stood, the sacrifices brought on the altar would atone for Israel. But now, when there is no Temple, a person’s table—upon which he feeds the poor—atones for him.
If the table is like the altar, the food eaten upon it is like the offerings. With regard to the offerings, the verse states, “You shall not omit the salt of your G‑d’s covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices.” Hence, we add salt to our staple food, bread—even the most delicious varieties.
How Is the Dipping Done? A Mystical Perspective
According to Kabbalah, salt, which is bitter, represents divine severity, and bread, the staff of life, represents divine kindness. Both the Hebrew word for bread, lechem (לחם), and the word for salt, melach (מלח), contain the same letters. However, we wish to overpower the severity of the salt with the kindness of the bread. Therefore, the common custom is not to sprinkle the salt (severity) atop the bread (kindness), but instead to dip the bread into the salt—kindness atop severity.
Additionally, many have the custom to dip the bread into the salt three times. One reason for this is that the gematria (numerical value) of lechem is 78. We dip the bread three times, dividing the energy of 78 into 3, which equals 26, the numerical value of G‑d’s name (the Tetragrammaton). This reminds us of the verse “Man does not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of the L‑rd does man live.”
The Satan and the Salt Covenant
Dipping aside, it is important to have salt on the table. Why? At the start of a meal we wash our hands and then sit down to wait for everyone else to do the same. The Midrash explains that while we wait silently—one may not talk between washing and the blessing over the bread—we are “bereft” of mitzvahs. At that point, the prosecuting angel (a.k.a. the Satan) tries to draw attention to this shortcoming. However, the “covenant of salt” mentioned above protects us.
Why is it a “covenant of salt”? What has salt got to do with our bond with G‑d? Salt is a preservative that neither spoils nor decays. These unique properties make salt the perfect metaphor for G‑d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people.
So next time you wash for bread and are waiting to eat, take a look at your salt shaker and remind yourself of G‑d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people. Even as you sit momentarily bereft of mitzvahs, the salt brings attention to the fact that G‑d’s pact with Israel will last forever.