WHEN THE CITIES of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, only Lot, his wife and two daughters survived. As these four people were escaping from the holocaust, Lot's wife turned around to look at the flaming cities "And she became a pillar of salt" (Gen. 19:26).

What grave sin did she commit to deserve so swift and severe a punishment? The sages explain that Lot's wife, like the people of Sodom, was heartless. She despised the poor and refused to welcome the stranger. "On the night that the angels visited Lot (in the shape of men), what did she do? She went about to all her neighbors and asked them, 'Give me salt, as we have guests,' her intention being that the townspeople should become aware of their presence (and drive them from town). Therefore, she became a pillar of salt" (Gen. Rab. 51:5).

Another version has it that when Lot brought a poor man to the house for a meal, she would willfully make the food so salty that it was no longer edible. She thus discouraged anyone from coming to her home for help. Her sin was hard-heartedness and greed. She lived an isolated and selfish life and her punishment: was midah k'neged midah --"measure for measure." "And she became a pillar of salt."

The difference between bread and salt can be explained in the following manner. Bread is universally considered a staple food, and man can subsist on it. A meal in Hebrew is referred to as "eating bread." For this reason the recitation of Hamotzi on bread usually absolves one from repeating benedictions on the rest of the food.

Salt, on the other hand, cannot and does not constitute a meal. It is useful only when it is combined with other ingredients, but is useless--even harmful--when eaten by itself.

The difference in the symbolism of bread and salt is expressed in their Hebrew spelling. The word for bread is lechem and the word for salt is melach . Both words have the identical three letters-- mem, lamed, chet . The difference is that lechem begins with lamed, and melach begins with mem .

When the lamed is used as a prefix, it means "to, toward, or drawing near." Thus lahem means "to them," lanu --"to us," le'elokim --"toward God." When people eat lechem together, it usually signifies that they are becoming closer and friendlier with each other. To this day we speak of "breaking bread" with someone, by which a spirit of goodwill and cooperation is promoted and enhanced.

The word melach for salt, represents the very opposite of lechem . It begins with the letter mem , which, at the beginning of a word, implies to draw away or to remove oneself from something or someone. Thus mimenu means "from him," mikem --"from them," me'elokim --"away from God."

The poor people came to the home of Lot seeking lechem and all that it represents--warmth, compassion, friendship, but MRs. Lot, through an over-abundance of melach , treated them with callousness, cruelty and disdain. Even when she managed to escape from the holocaust of Sodom, she expressed no sentiments of grief, experienced no pangs of anguish or feelings of remorse. She turned around and watched her neighbors roasting in the furnace and remained unmoved by the catastrophe. Her punishment came devastatingly and fast. And the sages say that it fitted the crime. Be,elach chatah ubemelach lakta . "By salt she sinned and by salt she was smitten" (Rashi Gen. 19: 26). Her sin was self- centeredness and cruelty, and her punishment was that she was forever to remain a pillar of melach .

In the Mishnah we are told that one who follows the principle of sheli sheli , "Mine is Mine," is a disciple of the people of Sodom (Ethics of the Fathers 5:13). The slogan of the inhabitants of Sodom was, "Each one for himself. Don't do anything for others." It is against such an attitude that Jewish law requires to wash one's hands (mayim achronim) after partaking of a meal, to rid oneself of melach sodomit shemesamo et ho'enayim , of "the salt of Sodom which blinds the eyes" (Chulin 105b; Erubin 17b). The sages wished to impress us with a lesson in sharing. When one enjoys food, he should not act like the people of Sodom, but should remember the hungry, poor, and the needy stranger.

Abraham, the Founder of our people, was the great teacher of the doctrine of lechem . When God appeared before Abraham, the patriarch left the presence of the Divine visitor in order to welcome and feed three unexpected guests. By this deed he taught that gedolah bakhnasat orhim yoter mekabalat pnei hashechinah , that it is more important to take care of human guests than even welcoming God (Sab. 127a).

One Friday evening the sainted Chafetz Chayim invited several poor guests to his home for the Sabbath meal. It is customary to chant Shalom Aleichem , a beautiful song of welcome, in honor of the angels of peace who frequent Jewish homes on the eve of the Sabbath. On arriving at his home, the Chafetz Chayim proceeded immediately to recite the kiddush and to eat the meal, and chanted Shalom Aleichem at the conclusion of the dinner. When asked to explain why he had deviated from the time-hallowed practice of chanting the song of welcome before partaking of food, he said, "I knew that the poor men I had invited were very hungry and were eager to eat, but dee malachim zeinen doch nisht hungerig oon kennen varten --the angels weren't hungry and could wait."

The Chafetz Chayim and many others, were merely following the example of Abraham. They were practicing the ideal of lamed in lechem and shunning the cruel philosophy of mem in melach of Sodom. I recommend that we do the same.

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