According to the Midrash, Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because she sinned with salt, and thus she was punished. This happened when the angels were invited home by Lot, who wished to fulfill the mitzvah of having guests. When he asked his wife to give them some salt, she answered, "Even this evil custom (of treating guests kindly by giving them salt) you want to do here (in Sodom)?!'
Salt is connected to the Jewish tradition to rinse our fingers and lips at the end of a meal at which bread was eaten. There are a few reasons given as to why we wash after the meal. Eating in most cases is not in itself a mitzvah, for essentially we eat to give life to the body, yet the blessing we say after the meal is a mitzvah from the Torah. (Deut. 8:10) If we wash before the meal - a physical event - how important it must be to wash after the meal, in order to purify ourselves before reciting prayers.
Instead of fighting with them, we placate them….
Jewish mysticism gives another explanation: The meal is such a holy event, evil energies surround the table, vying to steal some of the holiness away. Instead of fighting with them, we placate them. At the end of each meal, we wash off some of the tiny bits of food from our fingers and lips into a small bowl, which we put aside for them, as we would for dog or other pet, to leave us and our holy accomplishments alone.
Nevertheless, the main reason given for washing after the meal is to wash away the "salt of Sodom" that we used during the meal. While today salt is pure and refined, in previous generations salt came from salt flats, like in Sodom, which were filled with caustic chemicals. Rather than risk chemical burns, it became a custom to rinse off our fingers and lips from the salt.
Do not be blind to the needs of others….
According to this last and the most commonly mentioned reason, why should we have to wash our hands after the meal if we did not use salt specifically from Sodom? The book Ani Tefilati answers that the people of Sodom were so inhospitable, like Lot’s wife, that they did not give their guests even salt. Salt itself is not food, it is a seasoning, and thus turned into a trademark for inhospitality, of taking care of yourself but ignoring the requirements of those in need.
Our Rabbis instituted the custom of washing after the meal to forewarn against forgetting the needs of our guests, in particular when we have fulfilled our own needs. Wash off the salt of Sodom - wash away any vestige of stinginess. Do not be blind to the needs of others, and then your meals will always be holy events!
Shabbat Shalom, Shaul
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