Commentary on Matthew 5:13-14

By Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck

Translator’s Preface

The following was translated from Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Commentary on the New Testament on the Basis of the Talmud and Midrash), vol. 1, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel According to Matthew) (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1922), p. 232-238.

I translated it to help with sermon preparation for Epiphany 5, when the appointed Gospel is Matthew 5:13-20. It will also serve as the starting point for the February 2013 posts on my blog Jeshua at Bread for Beggars.

For more information on the authors, click herehere, or here.

If you would prefer a PDF version of this translation (especially for reading the Hebrew), you may download one here.

The numbered endnotes are original; the ones marked by symbols (*, †, etc.) are mine.

An acquaintance of mine, after hearing how much the ancients used and valued salt, said that a “preacher could spend the entire sermon just talking about how great salt is. Then, all he’d have to do is conclude by saying, ‘See, that’s how great Jesus thinks you are.'” May the translation that follows underscore this truth, which is only true through the purifying and preserving blood of Jesus.

Commentary on Matthew 5:13-14

5:13a. You are the salt of the earth.

1. Different types of salt

a. Sodomitic salt (מֶלַח סְדוֹמִית), produced by the evaporating saltwater of the Dead Sea, was considered to be especially sharp and was used for salting the offerings.1

Josephus mentions it only in passing in Antiquities 13, 4, 9. Here King Demetrius II includes the λίμνας τῶν ἁλῶν, i.e. the salt pools of the Dead Sea, in the inventory of revenue sources on whose earnings he was renouncing his claim as a favor to Jonathan the High Priest (161-143 bc); likewise in 1 Maccabees 11:35.

‘Erubin 17b: “Abaye [d. 338/339 ad] stated: This [i.e. the stipulation in ‘Erubin 1:10 (17a Mishnah) that the troops serving in the field were exempt from washing their hands at mealtime] was taught only in respect of the washing before a meal [lit.: the first water], but the washing after a meal [lit.: the second water] is obligatory. R. Hiyya b. Ashi [c. 270] stated: Why did the Rabbis rule that washing after a meal is obligatory? Because of the Sodomitic salt that [when it gets onto the hands from the food, and then from the hands into the eyes] causes blindness.”2 In Hullin 105b R. Hiyya b. Ashi’s question is instead asked by R. Judah b. Hiyya, c. 240.3

Sifre to Leviticus 2:13 (54a): “‘You shall salt all your grain offerings with salt’ (Lev 2:13). ‘With salt’ – One might think that he should just give it somewhat of a salty flavor [for which only a little salt would be necessary]; therefore it also says, ‘You shall salt’ [i.e. the combination במלח תמלח is meant to teach that the offering should be heavily salted]. If it only said, ‘You should salt’ [without the addition of ‘with salt’], then one might think that it should be done with brine; therefore it says, ‘with salt.’ ‘You shall not let salt be missing [תשבית]’ (Lev 2:13), that is, use salt that does not take a break [שובתת]. What kind of salt is that? That is Sodomitic salt [for the Dead Sea does not observe the Sabbath; it produces salt through evaporation day in and day out].” This is a Baraitha in Menahoth 21a;4 it appears in abridged form in Tosefta, Menahoth 9:15 (526).

b. Salt from Ostrakine (Ὀστρακίνη; Latin: Ostracena),5 a city on the Palestinian-Egyptian border (מֶלַח אִסְתְּרוֹקָנִית).

Sifre to Leviticus 2:13 (continuation from the citation in note a): “Why may one use salt from Ostrakine if he has no Sodomitic salt? Because it says at the end of the verse [Lev 2:13], ‘You shall offer salt’ – salt in the broadest sense of the word.” The same is found in Tosefta, Menahoth 9:15 and Menahoth 21a.6

The salt from Ostrakine is also contrasted with Sodomitic salt in other cases. Baba Bathra 20b: “Rab [d. 247] said: A partition may be made with anything save salt and grease. Samuel [d. 254] said: Even with salt. R. Papa [d. 376] said: There is no conflict between them [Rab and Samuel]; one speaks of Sodomitic salt and the other of the salt of Ostrakine.”7 Rashi remarks on this: “The Sodomitic salt was as firm and hard as a rock.” The same sentence is used to settle a different disagreement in Bezah 39a.8

c. Seasoned salt (מֶלַח סַלְקוֹנְטִית), probably = sal conditum (seasoned salt). For other spellings and definitions, see at Levy, Neuhebräisches und Chaldäisches Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midraschim 3:538a, and Krauss, Griechische und Lateinisch Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum 2:396.

‘Abodah Zarah 2:6 (35b Mishnah): “The following articles of heathens are prohibited but the prohibition does not extend to all use of them [but only to the enjoyment of them]: milk which a heathen milked without an Israelites watching him; their bread and oil – Rabbi [Judah II Nesiah] and his court permitted the oil – stewed, and preserved foodstuffs into which they are accustomed to put wine or vinegar, pickled herring which has been been minced, brine in which there is no kalbith-fish floating,  helek [a sauce made from small fish], drops of asafetida, and sal-conditum [seasoned salt]. Behold, these are prohibited but the prohibition does not extend to all use of them.9 For the explanation, see at Strack, ‘Abodah Zarah (1909), p. 8f.

Tosefta, ‘Abodah Zarah 4:12 (467): “Black seasoned salt is permitted, but white is prohibited. Thus said R. Meir [c. 150]. R. Judah [c. 150] said black is prohibited, but white is permitted. R. Judah b. Gamaliel [c. 250] said in the name of R. Hananiah b. Gamaliel [c. 120] that both were prohibited.” This appears as a Baraitha in ‘Abodah Zarah 39b; here Rabbah b. Bar Hanah appends the remark in the name of R. Johanan (d. 279): “In the opinion of him who declared the white to be prohibited, the intestines of unclean white fish are mixed with it; in the opinion of him who declared the black to be prohibited, the intestines of unclean black fish are mixed with it; and in the opinion of him who declared both kinds to be prohibited, [the intestines of] both species of fish are mixed with them.”10 It also appears as a Baraitha in JT ‘Abodah Zarah 2:9 Gemara,11 but is established anonymously.

‘Abodah Zarah 39b: “What is sal-conditum [מלח סלקונדרית]? Rab Judah [d. 299] said in the name of Samuel [d. 254]: Salt of which all סַלְקוּנְדְּרֵי of Rome partake.”12 Rashi defines the foreign word as נַחְתּוֹמִין, “bakers, confectioners,” and so has sal conditum (seasoned salt) in mind. Levy, Neuhebräisches und Chaldäisches Wörterbuch 3:538, emends the word to סלוקתי: salt with which one enjoys all boiled foods in Rome. Fleischer, cited in Levy 3:724b, thinks the word is a derivative of σαλάκων and translates: a type of salt enjoyed by all the pompous people of Rome – probably because it is more rare and expensive than other salt.

d. Rock salt (?) (מִילְחָא גְלָלָנִיתָא) = salt formed in lumps, coarse salt.

Hullin 113a: “R. Dimi of Nehardea [c. 320] used to salt meat with coarse salt and then shake it off.”13

Kiddushin 62a: “What is the meaning of, ‘ye shall be fed with the sword’ [Isa 1:20]? — Said Raba [d. 352]: Coarse salt, hard baked barley bread, and onions; for a Master said: Stale bread baked in a large oven with salt and onions is as harmful to the body as swords.”14

2. Uses for salt

Joshua ben Sirach includes salt in the most basic necessities of life (Sirach 39:26): “water and fire and iron and salt, wheat flour, milk and honey, the blood of the grape, oil, and clothing.” If one disregards this use of salt for the preparation of human nourishment, then the rabbinic literature still mentions the following possible uses:

a. All offerings were salted; see at Mark 9:49.

b. Middoth 5:3 attests the curing of animal hides with salt: “There were six chambers in the azarah [outer court], three on the north and three on the south. On the north were the Salt Chamber, the Parwah Chamber [פַּרְוָה apparently was the name of the builder] and the Washers Chamber [for washing off the sacrificial meat]. In the Salt Chamber they used to keep the salt for the offerings. In the Parwah Chamber they used to salt the skins of the animal-offerings [these belonged to the priests]…”15 The Baraitha in Menahoth 21b is at variance: “And so you find that salt was used in three places: in the salt chamber, on the ascent [on the south side of the altar of burnt offering, 32 cubits long and 16 cubits wide, according to Middoth 3:316] and at the head of [or on top of] the altar. In the salt chamber…they used to salt the hides of animal-offerings; on the ascent…they used to salt the sacrificial meat; at the head of [or on] the altar…they used to salt the handful [the memorial portion taken from grain offering], the frankincense, the incense-offering, the meal-offering of the priests, the anointed [High] Priest’s meal-offering, the meal-offering that is offered with the drink-offerings, and the burnt-offering of a bird!”17 King Antiochus’ letter in Josephus, Antiquities 12, 3, 3, shows what amounts of salt were required for the temple supply. In the letter he orders that 375 medimni (Greek bushels)* of salt be delivered to the temple.

c. ‘Erubin 10:14 (104a Mishnah): “Salt may be scattered [on the Sabbath] on the altar’s ascent that the priests shall not slip.18

d. Shabbath 6:5 (64b Mishnah): “A woman may go out [on the Sabbath, without making herself guilty of desecrating the day]…with a peppercorn, with a globule of salt [in her mouth, for potential toothaches]…”19

e. Sotah 9:14 (49a Mishnah): “During the war with Vespasian they [the rabbis] decreed against [the use of] crowns worn by bridegrooms and against [the use of] the drum.20 The Gemara comments on this in 49b: “Rab [d. 247] said: [The decree against the use of a crown] applies only to one made of salt and brimstone, but if made of myrtle or roses it is permitted; and Samuel [d. 254] said: Also one made of myrtle or roses is prohibited, but if made of reeds or rushes it is permitted; and Levi [ben Sisi, c. 200, is meant] said: Also one made of reeds or rushes is prohibited. Similarly taught Levi in his [personal collection of] Mishnah: It is also prohibited if made of reeds or rushes.”21 Rashi comments on this passage: “They were made of salt because it is as clear as a gemstone… They were made of brimstone because they looked like crown made of gold and silver.”† Johann Christoph Wagenseil conveys the following tradition: “The crowns of bridegrooms were made from sulfur and salt in order that they might call to mind once again the sin of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were perversely yielding themselves entirely to adulteries and to the sexual love of males, and for that reason had to bear the penalty of having their land turned into salt and sulfur. Therefore those crowns of salt and sulfur were warning the bridegroom that he should cling to his wife and guard himself against the sins of the men of Sodom.”‡

f. Sukkah 48b Baraitha: “It once happened that a certain Sadducee poured the water libation over his feet [on the Feast of Tabernacles, instead of into the silver basin on the altar] and all the people pelted him with their ethrogs [probably oranges, which were part of the makeup of the לוּלָב, the festive wreath or bundle for the Feast of Tabernacles]. On that day [as a result of the disturbance] the horn of the altar became damaged, and a handful of salt was brought and it [the damaged spot] was stopped up, not because the altar was thereby rendered valid for the service, but merely in order that it should not appear damaged, for an altar which has not the ascent, the horn [sharp corner], the base and the square shape is invalid for the service. R. Jose b. Judah [c. 180] adds, Also [it must have] the circuit [or ledge; סוֹבֵב corresponds to כַּרְכֹּב in Exodus 27:5].”22 The same is found in Zebahim 62a;23 the beginning comes from Sukkah 4:9 (48b Mishnah).24

g. Shabbath 67b Baraitha: “A lump of salt may be placed in a lamp in order that it should burn [more] brightly…”25

h. The custom of rubbing newborn children with salt, taken as a given in Ezekiel 16:4, is utilized as Halacha in Shabbath 129b: “R. Nahman [d. 320] also said in Rabbah b. Abbuha’s [c. 270] name in Rab’s [d. 247] name: All that is mentioned in the chapter of rebuke [namely Ezekiel 16] may be done for a new mother on the Sabbath. As it is said, And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you; you were not salted at all, nor wrapped up at all [Eze 16:14]. ‘And as for your birth, on the day you were born’: hence a person may assist with the birth of a child on the Sabbath; ‘your cord was not cut’: hence the navel-cord may be cut on the Sabbath: ‘neither were you washed in water to cleanse you’: hence the infant may be washed on the Sabbath; ‘you were not salted at all’: hence the infant may be rubbed with salt on the Sabbath; ‘nor wrapped up at all’: hence the infant may be wrapped on the Sabbath.”26

3. Salt as a picture of utter devastation and destruction, as it is in Deuteronomy 29:23; Judges 9:45; Jeremiah 17:6; Zephaniah 2:9; and Job 39:6.

Midrash on Lamentations, Introduction 9 (31b): “R. Isaac [c. 300] opened his lecture with Jeremiah 51:51. — You will find that when the enemies penetrated into Jerusalem, the Ammonites and Moabites penetrated with them. ‘Heathens…who should not come into the assembly [= Ammonites and Moabites (Dt 23:3)] came into the sanctuary’ [Lam 1:10]. There they found the two cherubim. They took them, placed them in a basket, and carried them through the streets of Jerusalem calling out, ‘Have you not said that this nation worships no idols? Now see what we have found in their possession and what they have worshiped! Then all people are just like yourselves!’ For it says, ‘Because Moab and Seir say, “Look, the house of Judah is like all other nations,”’ etc. [Eze 25:8]. At that hour God swore that he would exterminate them from the world by the very roots. For it says, ‘Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah…a salt pit and wasteland forever.’”

JT Qiddushin 4:1 Gemara: “‘These are they who came up from Tel-Melah, Tel-Harsha…and they were not able to show that their family and their seed were descended from Israel’ [Ezr 2:59]. R. Levi [c. 300] said in the name of R. Simeon b. Laqish [c. 250], ‘They were worthy of being turned into a hill of salt [Tel-Melah]; only the Divine Righteousness, the Hill of Silence [Tel-Harsha], kept silent in their favor.’”27

Yoma 54a: “R. Jose said: For seven years sulphur and salt [Dt 29:22] prevailed in the land of Israel.”28 Cf. Pesikta 114a besides the parallels.

4. Salt as a purifying, seasoning, and preservative agent (cf. Job 6:6).

Berakoth 5a (according to the unabridged text from Dikduke Soferim, cited in Wilhelm Bacher, Die Agada der Palästinensischen Amoräer 1:355): “R. Simeon b. Lakish [c. 250] said: The word ‘covenant’ is mentioned in connection with salt and with chastisements [sufferings]: In connection with salt, as it is written, ‘Neither shall you let the salt of the covenant to be lacking with your grain offering’ [Lev 2:13]. And in connection with chastisements, as it is written, ‘These are the words of the covenant’ [Dt 29:1]. [This passaged does not fit; using Dikduke Soferim, Bacher refers to Ezekiel 20:37: ‘I will bring you into the discipline of the covenant.’] As in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt makes the offering fit [for offering to God], so in the covenant mentioned in connection with chastisements, the chastisements make the sin fit [for forgiveness]. As the salt purifies the meat, so the chastisements purify the entire body of a man.”29

Niddah 31a Baraitha: “When his time to depart from the world approaches the Holy One, blessed be He, takes away his share [the soul] and the share of his parents [the body] remains lying before them. R. Papa [d. 376] observed: It is this that people have in mind when they say, ‘Shake off the salt and cast the flesh to the dog.’”30

Maseketh Soferim 15:8: “The Torah is like salt, the Mishnah like pepper, the Gemara like spices. The world cannot continue without salt, pepper, or spices, and the rich man enjoys all three in his sustenance. So too the world cannot continue without Scripture, the Mishnah, or the Gemara.”

Philo, De Sacrificantibus §6 (Mangey edition, 2:255): Μετὰ ταῦτά φησιν, Ἐπὶ παντὸς δώρου προσοίσετε ἅλας· δι᾽ οὗ, καθάπερ καὶ πρότερον εἶπον, τὴν εἰς ἅπαν διαμονὴν αἰνίττεται. Φυλακτήριον γὰρ οἱ ἅλες σωμάτων, τετιμημένοι ψυχῆς δευτερείοις. Ὡς γὰρ αἰτία τοῦ μὴ διαφθείρεσθαι τὰ σώματα ψυχὴ καὶ οἱ ἅλες ἐπὶ πλεῖστον αὐτὰ συνέχοντες καὶ τρόπον τινὰ ἀθανατίζοντες. “After this it says, ‘Add salt to every offering’ [Lev 2:13]. He thereby figuratively implies an absolute duration, just as I said before. For salts are a preservative for bodies, having been judged worthy of second place only to the soul. For as the soul is a cause of bodies not being destroyed, so are salts, since they keep bodies intact to the greatest extent and, in a way, make them immortal.”

Shabbath 31a: “Raba [d. 352] said, When man is led in for [divine] Judgment he is asked, Did  you buy and sell in honesty? Did you make time for study of the Torah? Did you engage in procreation? Did you watch for the [messianic] salvation? Did you debate [the Halacha] with wisdom? Did you explain one word on the basis of another? And even if he has, if ‘the fear of the Lord is his treasure’ [Isa 33:6], then it will go well; but if not, then not. It is like a man who instructed his agent, ‘Bring a cor of wheat to the loft for me,’ and he went and brought it up. He then said to the agent, ‘Did you mix in a cab of salt-sand [חוּמְטוֹן, in order to preserve the grain]?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Then it would have been better if you had not brought it up,’ he retorted.”31

5. A proverb of Jerusalem (Kethuboth 66b Baraitha;32 Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 17), which stems already from the time of Jesus, very closely resembles the form of Jesus’ words here. It has been handed down in two versions:

a. “The salt of money is want” (מלח ממון חסר). The proverb could mean that only when a person has experienced want does he know how to value money. However, this sense does not fit in the context. The proverb is the answer to the question that Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai (d. c. 80) directed at the daughter of Nakdomon b. Gorion: “What has become of the wealth of your father’s house?” It must therefore contain an assertion about the spending of money. So Rashi probably hit upon the right sense: “Whoever wants to salt his money, i.e. wants to make it so that his wealth retains permanence, he should always let it get lost to alms. Its loss is its permanence.” If this interpretation hits upon the actual sense of the proverb, then the second version only appears to be a reading intended to make the meaning more easily understood:

b. “The salt of money is benevolence” (מלח ממון חסד): Riches only have worth and duration when they are used to practice mercy.

In the same way Jesus’ disciples are to be the salt of the earth. They should impart the value of eternity to humanity and thus make them to be of eternal worth.

What is new and, as far as we can tell, without analogy in ancient Jewish literature is the personal slant that Jesus has given to the picture: Humans are to be a salt.

5:13b. But if salt becomes insipid, with what shall it be salted (ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται)?

Bekoroth 8b: (R. Joshua b. Hanania, c. 90, is asked by the wise men of the Athenian school in Rome:) “‘Tell us some stories [fables].’ He said to them: ‘There was a [female] mule which gave birth, and round its neck was a document in which was written, “There is a claim against my father’s house of one hundred thousand zuz.”’ They asked him: ‘Can a mule give birth?’ He answered them: ‘This is one of those stories [you asked for].’ [Then they asked him:] ‘When salt becomes unsavory, wherewith is it salted [מילחא כי סריא במאי מלחי לה]?’ He replied: ‘With the after-birth of a mule.’ ‘And is there an after-birth of a mule [if a mule cannot give birth in the first place]?’ [He replied:] ‘And can salt become unsavory?’”33 The reference to Matthew 5:13 stands out so clearly that one cannot help but see in the entire passage a cynical mockery of Mary and Jesus. The implication is this: The salt of Israel never becomes insipid and thus does not need any freshening, least of all by a man like Jesus!**

5:13c. Except to be poured out.

Cf. the saying in Niddah 31a Baraitha above.

5:14a. You are the light of the world.

In rabbinical literature “light of the world” is expressed by נֵרוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם and אוֹרוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם. The original distinction between נר and אור – namely that the former designates that which produces the light, the lamp, and the latter the bright and shining light itself, the flame34 – has not been upheld in the combination above. Rf. 2 Samuel 21:17, where David is called נר ישראל already at that time.

The following are designated as “light” or “lamp of the world”:

a. God. Midrash Tanhuma בהעלותךi204a: “‘When you set up the lamps’ [Num 8:2]. This is also what Psalm 18:28 means: ‘You make my lamp bright.’ The Israelites spoke in God’s presence: ‘Lord of the world, you say that we should make bright [light up] before you, but it is you who are the lamp of the world [נרו של עולם], and light dwells with you [Dan 2:22], yet you say, “When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps should light the area in front of the lampstand” [Num 8:2]!’ God said to them: ‘It is not as though I have need of you. You should rather shine for me as I have shone for you [with the pillar of cloud during the wandering in the wilderness]. For what purpose? In order to exalt you [make you glorious] before all nations, so that they say, “See how Israel shines for the One who shines for all!”’” In the parallels, Midrash Tanhuma B בהעלותךi§5 (24a) and Numbers Rabbah 15:5, God is not called נרו של עולם, but אורו של עולם, “light of the world.”35 In Exodus Rabbah 36:2 there is no corresponding designation for God.36

b. Individual humans. JT Shabbat 2:6 Gemara: “The first man was the lamp of the world [נרו של עולם], as it is written, ‘The soul of Adam was a lamp of the Lord’ [Pr 20:27; thus probably the Midrash]. Since Eve caused him to die, therefore the requirement concerning the [kindling of the Sabbath] lamp [מצות הנר] was assigned to the woman.”37 In Genesis Rabbah 17:8 there is no designation of Adam as “lamp of the world.”38

Aboth of Rabbi Nathan 25: “When the time came for Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai [d. c. 80] to depart this world, he raised his voice and began to weep. His students said to him, ‘Rabbi, exalted pillar, lamp of the world [נר עולם], mighty hammer, why do you weep?’” The parallel passage in Berakoth 28b has נר ישראל instead of נר עולם, in keeping with 2 Samuel 21:17.39

c. Israel. Midrash on Song of Songs 1:3 (85a): “As the oil of the world produces light, so is Israel the light for the world [אורה לעולם], as it is written, ‘Nations will journey to your light’ [Isa 60:3].” Cf. Exodus Rabbah 36:1: “Our forefathers were accordingly called ‘a leafy olive tree’ [Jer 11:16] because they gave light to all.”40

Midrash on Song of Songs 1:15 (94a): “As the dove of the world brought light [rf. Gen 8:11], so you too [Israel] should bring light to the world, as it is written, ‘Nations will journey to your light’ [Isa 60:3].” According to the parallel passage in Midrash Tanhuma B תצוהi§1 (48b), R. Isaac, c. 300, is the author of this statement.

d. The Torah and the temple. Baba Bathra 4a: “[After Herod I had the rabbis killed, he asked Baba b. Buta:] Now tell me what amends I can make. He replied: As you have extinguished the light of the world [אורו של עולם], as it is written, For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah a light [Pr 6:23], go now and attend to the light of the world [אורו של עולם, namely the temple], of which it is written, All nations will journey to it [Isa 2:2].”41

e. Jerusalem. Genesis Rabbah 59:5: “Jerusalem is the light of the world [אורו של עולם], as it says, And nations shall journey to your light [Isa 60:3]; and who is the light of Jerusalem? God, as it is written, The Lord shall be your light [Isa 60:20].”42

Just as the rabbis speak of the lamp or light of the world, so they also speak of the lamp or light of Israel:

‘Arakin 10a: “[Rabbi] answered [his son Simeon]: Light of Israel [נר ישראל]! So it was!”43 For more, see Berakoth 28b above in note b.

Midrash on Psalm 22 §3 (91a): “As the scent of myrtle is pleasant but its taste is bitter, so Mordecai and Esther were a light for Israel [אור לישראל] but darkness for the peoples of the world.”

The synonym בוֹצִינָא can also substitute for נר and אור:

JT Shabbat 6:9 Gemara: “R. Jonah [c. 350] and R. Yosé [c. 350] went up to visit R. Aha [c. 320], who was failing. They said, ‘We shall follow the counsel of an echo [here = omen].’ They [then] heard a woman saying to her friend, ‘Has the light [בוצינה] gone out?’ The other said to her, ‘It will not go out!’ And the light of Israel [בוציניהון דישראל = R. Aha] did not go out.”44

Genesis Rabbah 85:4: “‘And Judah saw there the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua’ [Gen 38:2]. She was the daughter [read בת with the Targum Onkelos instead of בר] of a merchant who was the lamp of that place [בוצינא דאתרא].”i45

It is said of the righteous in general, in Pesahim 8a: “To what are the righteous comparable in the presence of the Shechinah [Divine Being]? To a lamp [נר] in the presence of a torch [אַבוּקָה].”i46

The expression “sun of a righteous man” (שמשו של צדיק), which has been cited more than once, does not belong in this discussion. It occurs, for example, in Genesis Rabbah 58:2: “[R. Abba b. Kahana, c. 310, said]: [B]efore the Holy One, blessed be He, causes the sun of one righteous man to set, he causes the sun of another righteous man to rise. Thus, on the day that R. Akiba died [d. c. 135], our Teacher [namely, Rabbi] was born…”47

5:14b. A city on a mountain cannot be hidden.

In Megillah 3b, a city “situated on the top of a mountain” (דיתבה בראש ההר) is contrasted with another which “is situated in a valley” (שיושבת בנחל). The passage reads: “R. Joshua b. Levi [c. 250] said: A [fortified] city [כָּרָךְ] and all that adjoins it and all that is taken in by the eye with it is treated as [a fortified] city. [The suburbs are reckoned as the city.] A Tanna commented: Adjoining, even if it is not visible, and visible even if it is not adjoining [is treated as a city]. Now we understand what is meant by ‘visible even though not adjoining’: this can occur for instance with a city situated on the top of a mountain. But how can there be ‘adjoining but not visible’? R. Jeremiah [c. 320] replied: If [the city] is situated in a valley.”48

One example of a city situated on a mountain was Sepphoris. Megillah 6a: “Zeira [c. 250] said: Kitron [Jdg 1:30] is Sepphoris. And why is it called Sepphoris? Because it is perched on the top of a mountain like a bird [שיושבת בראש ההר כצפור].”i49

Pesikta Rabbati 8 (29a): “‘I am making a thorough search of Jerusalem with lamps’ [Zph 1:12]. The Israelites said, ‘Lord of the world, when will you do this?’ He replied, ‘When I have done what was written first: “On that day, declares the Lord, a loud cry will go up from the Fish Gate,” and so on [Zph 1:10f].’ ‘A loud cry from the Fish Gate’ – that applies to Akko, which lies in the lap of the fish. ‘Wailing from the second city [i.e. the new quarter of the city]’ – that applies to Lydda, which was second to Jerusalem. ‘A loud crash from the hills’ – that applies to Sepphoris, which is situated on hills [שנתונה בגבעות]. ‘Mourn, you inhabitants of the mortar’ – that applies to Tiberias, which is deep like a mortar. God said, ‘When I have carried out my judgement on those four places for what the idolaters have done in them, in that hour I will make a thorough search of Jerusalem with lamps.’” This interpretation is also familiar to Rashi in his commentary on Zephaniah 1:10f. Heinrich Graetz, in Geschichte der Juden (2nd ed.) 4, 490f, applies it to the destruction of the aforenamed cities by Gallus.


1 Krauss, Talmudische Archäologie 1:119, thinks that the Sodomite salt was “salt mined from the salt mountains near the Dead Sea.”

2 Soncino, 117, alt.

3 Ibid., 584.

4 Ibid., 135-136.

5 Thus Krauss, Griechische und Lateinisch Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum 2:99 and Talmudische Archäologie 1:500. Dalman has Istrian (?) salt (Istrisches [?] Salz).

6 Soncino, 136.

7 Ibid., 102, alt.

8 Ibid., 195.

9 Ibid., 171-172.

10 Ibid., 195.

11 Neusner, 92.

12 Soncino, 195, alt.

13 Ibid., 620.

14 Ibid., 310-311.

15 Ibid., 21-22.

16 Ibid., 12.

17 Ibid., 137.

* In Attic medimni, this would be about 559 US bushels.

18 Soncino, 723.

19 Ibid., 306. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, said that the popular wisdom of his day maintained “that teeth neither rot nor decay if one daily while fasting in the morning keeps a piece of salt under the tongue until it melts” (Book 31, Chapter 45). The context of this mishnaic quote makes clear that this wouldn’t be taking place in the morning, since the peppercorn or salt globule had to be placed in the woman’s mouth before the Sabbath, which commenced at 6 p.m. on Friday. However, the practice of placing salt in the mouth to help one’s teeth could have been a more general one among the Jews. – trans.

20 Ibid., 265.

21 Ibid., 267-268.

† The Soncino edition also includes this note: “Rashi explains that it was a crown cut out of a block of salt upon which figures were traced with brimstone” (ibid., 267, fn. 9).

‡ The particular work of Wagenseil in which he conveys this tradition is not given.

22 Ibid., 229.

23 Ibid., 306.

24 Ibid., 226-227.

25 Ibid., 322.

26 Ibid., 647-648, alt.

27 Cf. Neusner, 188,189.

28 Soncino, 253.

29 Cf. ibid., 19. The Hebrew of the Soncino only has one comparison, which reads: “As in the convenant mentioned in connection with salt, the salt makes the meat more palatable, so in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings, the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.”

30 Ibid., 214, alt.

31 Cf. ibid., 141-142.

32 Ibid., 405.

33 Ibid., 53, alt.

** The mockery of Jesus seems more perceptible here than the mockery of Mary by comparing her to a mule. But since neither is explicit, the reader must be careful not to make absolute assumptions.

34 Midrash on Psalm 22 §3 (91a): “According to common custom, a man lights the lamp [הנר] in his palace. Is it possible for him to say, ‘So and so, who is my friend, may enjoy [avail himself of] the light of the lamp [לאור הנר], but my enemy may not enjoy the light of the lamp’? No, all enjoy it at the same time.”

35 Sonc. MR, 645.

36 Ibid., 439.

37 Cf. Neusner, 93.

38 Sonc. MR, 139.

39 Soncino, 173.

40 Sonc. MR, 438.

41 Soncino, 11, alt.

42 Sonc. MR, 519, alt.

43 Soncino, 53.

44 Neusner, 180, alt.

45 Sonc. MR, 791, alt.

46 Soncino, 32.

47 Sonc. MR, 509.

48 Soncino, 14.

49 Ibid., 27.

About redbrickparsonage
Red Brick Parsonage is operated by a confessional Lutheran pastor serving in the Midwest.

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