Ezekiel 16:4 seems to be describing practices performed on an infant or young child. But, what practice does לֹא הֻמְלַחַתְּ refer to? Do any rabbis explain the meaning?

  • H3br3wHamm3r81, I've been looking at your profile and I hope you don't mind me asking: Why did you decide to ask this on Jusaism.SE instead of Hermeneutics.SE or even Christianity.SE (which would seem to be more your comfort zone)? – jake Mar 22 '13 at 21:08
  • @jake: Because I don't think either of those SE sites can answer the question, "Do any rabbis explain the meaning?" better than Judaism.SE. :) – user2088 Mar 22 '13 at 21:10
  • What I meant was, why did you want to know what rabbis say about it over whatever sources you can be provided with at Hermeneutics or Christianity? Did you think this was referring to some sort of specifically Jewish practice? – jake Mar 22 '13 at 21:12
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    @jake: Well, Christianity.SE wasn't an option no matter what, because it's not a question one would ask there (i.e., it's not related to Christian doctrine, per se). I think it obviously refers to a Jewish practice. A Jew (Ezekiel) wrote about it, and the implication of the particular pasuk is that it was a common practice during that time. So, yes, Jewish practice indeed. I know of no Christian sources that have ever mentioned Christians practicing that. Now, I suppose I could have asked on BH.SE, but, I don't think the answers would have been as plentiful. It's kind of a judgment thing. – user2088 Mar 22 '13 at 21:18
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    See now a related question on this verse at Hermeneutics.SE. – Dɑvïd Dec 16 '14 at 8:20

Rashi implies that the practice was to salt the infant to strengthen its flesh. (See also Malbim.)

According to Abarbanel, the salt was added in the water to strengthen the infant's body, but also (it seems) for extra hydration.

Apparently, salting newborns was an ancient practice that was also recommended by Soranus of Ephesus. From here:

Soranus recommends that the midwife sprinkle the infant with a moderate amount of "fine and powdery salt, or natron or aphronitre." All these chemicals are mildly astringent and were recommended primarily for their ability to cut through the residue of amniotic fluid, vermix, and placenta on the newborn's skin and also to make the skin less prone to develop rashes; however, astringents would also tend to make the baby's skin dry out and flake or crack. Soranus suggests mixing the salt with honey, olive oil, or the juice of barley, fenugreek, or mallow so the granules are less likely to abrade the baby's delicate skin. The emulsion is to be washed away with warm water and the process repeated a second time.

However, according to Abraham Benisch (quoting Ben-Zeev), the root "מלח" in this case does not mean "salt", but rather "swaddle" or something similar, and this is a parallelism with the next phrase "וְהָחְתֵּל לֹא חֻתָּלְתְּ". Compare to Jer. 38:11: "בְלוֹיֵ מְלָחִים" - "worn rags". (He also compares to "מַלָח" - "sailor/seafarer", but I don't understand the comparison he makes.)

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    Do we have any evidence of this practice in contemporary historical sources? – Double AA Mar 21 '13 at 21:52
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    @DoubleAA, Found this and this with Google. I'll edit something into the answer. – jake Mar 21 '13 at 22:03
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    @SethJ, There's no Christian theology here, just Christian exegesis (which, in the case of John Gill, is mostly based on Jewish sources). But if it really bothers you, I'll remove it. – jake Mar 22 '13 at 1:32
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    @SethJ, I merely cited it because it adds insight into how the practice in question was done, the same reason I cited (indirectly) Soranus of Ephesus regardless of his lack of Jewishness. [cont.] – jake Mar 22 '13 at 3:29
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    @SethJ Theology? Seriously? – Double AA Mar 22 '13 at 6:30

It means you weren't salted. It seems to be some sort of old tradition that somehow treating newborns with salt (externally, by rubbing, I suppose) was good for the flesh of the child.

See Rashi there. He explains that it "hardens" the flesh. Targum doesn't seem to think anything of it and "translates" it straight as salting (it's the same word in Aramaic, just slightly different form).

Mahar"i Kra explains that in other lands this was done.

  • Do we have any evidence of this practice in contemporary historical sources? – Double AA Mar 21 '13 at 21:52
  • Yes, it means "you were not salted," but the verse implies that other infants were indeed salted, as well as washed with water, have their umbilicus cut, and swaddled (other verbs present in the same verse). – user2088 Mar 21 '13 at 22:04
  • @double aa what's a contemporary historical source? I seem to recall something like this that I learned recently, and I'm wondering if it might be and the section of Mas. Shabbath that discusses what you can and cannot do for a newborn. – Seth J Mar 21 '13 at 22:44
  • @SethJ I mean like Babylonian peer reviewed medical journals or something that indicates that salting a baby was a thing. If it was common in the time period, then the analogy Ezekiel makes makes sense. – Double AA Mar 21 '13 at 22:51
  • Well, if it's in the Gemara (which I have not had time to look up to confirm), is that "contemporary" enough? If not, is V. Care of the Newborn After Delivery (page 58) from Soranus contemporary enough? (With thanks to jake.) – Seth J Mar 22 '13 at 16:20

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