The ancient rabbis quoted the Bible all the time. But they quoted other things, too. There were popular Jewish sayings, and there were also quips and quotes with broad, international appeal.
No matter the source, a witty turn of phrase can help you get your point across.
Once, the sages taught that there are three partners in bringing a human into this world. Between the father and mother, they each contribute to the child’s physical makeup. But life itself, the soul, and the mind come from God. They explained that when a person dies, God simply takes his portion back and leaves the rest. Then the sages quoted an old saying that everybody knew at the time: “If you take the salt out of meat, you might as well throw it to a dog.”
That seems like an insensitive way to describe death, but people knew what it meant. Just as salt keeps meat from spoiling, the soul is what keeps the body alive. Once the soul is gone, decay is inevitable.
On another occasion, the sages asked the daughter of a rich man how she ended up penniless. She quoted a common secular proverb: “There is no salt for wealth.” In other words, you can preserve meat with salt, but there is no way to ensure that your wealth will last forever. The sages taught her the Jewish version of this saying: “Giving is salt for wealth.” They had the same concept in mind as Yeshua when he said, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).
Rabbi Joshua versus the Greek Philosophers
Salt appears in another popular saying. Around the first century, the philosophers of Athens posed a question to Rabbi Joshua, one of the leading sages at the time: “If salt begins to spoil, with what do you preserve it?”
This Greek witticism has a rhetorical point beyond being a nerdy conversation starter. If the agent you are using to protect society becomes compromised, it is useless, and the community is in trouble. The Roman satirists had a similar but more blunt question: “Who watches the watchmen?”
In their debate with Rabbi Joshua, the Greek philosophers use the phrase to challenge Judaism’s claim that the Torah preserves society. What if the Torah fails? With what do you preserve the “spoiling salt” of Torah?
Rabbi Joshua had his own clever comeback: “With the afterbirth of a mule” (perhaps his simile for Greek philosophy). “But mules can’t give birth,” the philosophers objected. “Nor can salt spoil,” Rabbi Joshua said. In other words, the Torah will never fail to preserve society.
You Are the Salt of the Earth
You may have already recognized the philosophers’ aphorism from the Sermon on the Mount. Yeshua told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), and then quoted this well-known Greek saying.
Our Master told us that we, his disciples, preserve the world. As “salt,” this is our primary job. Because of our godly characteristics, we prevent the world from being corrupted and destroyed. We are like the ten righteous who were missing from Sodom and could have held back its destruction.
If an item loses its primary function, there is no sense in keeping it around. In the same way, if we disciples lose the properties that make us capable of holding back the world’s decay, then we will be caught up in it. If we fail to bear the proper characteristics as disciples, destruction will come.
What are those characteristics? Yeshua’s disciples are poor in spirit. They are mourners. They are meek. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are merciful. They are pure in heart. They are peacemakers.
As we witness the moral decline of society, it’s easy to point fingers at others. However, our Master taught us that the responsibility is ours. By living out his teachings of love and kindness, we generate the light of the kingdom as a beacon to others.
- b.Niddah 31a.
- b.Ketubot 66b.
- b.Bechorot 8b.