A Pillar of Salt: A Text Study

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

D'Var Torah By: Michael Torop

What was the essence of Lot's wife's transgression in Parashat Vayeira? Was it disobeying the instruction of the divine messengers? Was it simply looking back? Does the text suggest that something more complex is involved? Why was it her specific punishment to be turned into a pillar of salt? We invite you to consider these questions as you read and study the texts that follow.

As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Eternal rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire [brimstone and fire] from the Eternal out of heaven?. Lot's wife looked back [literally, "from behind him"], and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt. - Genesis 19:23-24, 26

  • Where were Lot and his wife in relation to each other when she looked back?
  • To what does the phrase "from behind him" refer?

We begin our study with a text from the Zohar, a mystical, thirteenth-century Spanish commentary:

"But his wife looked back from behind him." We should have expected "from behind her." What this text really means is, "from behind the Sh'chinah" (the immanent Presence of God). Thus when "his wife looked back from behind him," she turned her face to the destroying angel, and, as a result, she became a pillar of salt. For as long as the destroying angel does not see the face of a person, he does not harm that individual; but as soon as Lot's wife turned her face to look at him, she became a pillar of salt.

An eighth-century midrash from Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer states: The angels said to them, "Do not look behind you since the Divine Presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, has descended to rain brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah."

  • What do this midrash and the Zohar both suggest that the text is concerned with prohibiting (rather than prohibiting Lot and his wife and family from looking at the destruction per se)?
  • How does this inform your evaluation of Lot's wife's action and her punishment?
  • Based on the teaching of the Zohar, how can the Sh'chinah be a form of protection for us?

"Do not look behind you: You sinned with them but you are saved through the merit of Abraham." Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak] 1040-1105, France

  • To what sin is Rashi referring? Who sinned? Lot? Lot's wife? Both of them?

"Lot's wife looked back [from behind him], and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt." In Genesis Rabbah R. Isaac said: "She sinned through salt. On the night that the angels visited Lot, Lot said to his wife, 'Give these guests a bit of salt.' But she replied, '[Besides entertaining guests], is it your wish to introduce into Sodom another vile custom [that of seasoning their food]?' What did she do? She went around among all her neighbors, saying to each one, 'Give me salt. We have guests,' intending thereby to have the townspeople become aware of the presence of guests in her home [and penalize Lot for it]. Hence, she herself became a pillar of salt."

-As cited in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik and Ravnitzky

  • How does Genesis Rabbah understand Rashi's comment that they both sinned?
  • Was Lot's sin that he was hospitable? Why was Lot's wife wrong for informing the neighbors?
  • How does this "punishment fit the crime"?

At the time of this writing in 2000, Michael Torop was the associate rabbi and director of education at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY.

An Ethic of Observation

Daver Acher By: Betsy Torop

If you have ever been to the Dead Sea, you have surely been struck by the remarkable salt formations found in the region. If your imagination is particularly vivid, you, like others before you, may even have thought that you saw Lot's wife: "Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt." (Genesis 19:26) The tragedy that befalls Lot's unnamed wife represents one of the most intriguing aspects of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. (Genesis 18:16-19:38)

For lack of a minyan of righteous people, God resolves to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah. Thereupon, Lot is visited by two divine messengers (malachim or angels), who offer him and his family the opportunity to escape to safety. Because Lot delays, the messengers bring him, his wife, and two daughters to the outskirts of the city, saying, "Flee for your life! Do not look behind you, nor stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, lest you be swept away." (Genesis 19:17) By disregarding this directive, Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. Why did she look back? And why was she turned into a pillar of salt as a result of this backward glance? Many of the traditional commentators suggest that by looking back at the destruction, Lot's wife was (so to speak) "infected" by it. In the words of the fifteenth-century Italian commentator Sforno: " The evil will spread to you as if it were following you but will not harm you. However, if you stop to peer [behind you], it will [overtake you] and cleave to you." Rashi adds a slightly different emphasis: "It is not fitting that you should witness their doom while you yourself are escaping." The feminist commentator Judith Antonelli summarizes these comments as reflecting "the notion that watching the violent destruction of others is harmful to oneself. The concept that there are certain things at which one should not look is the antithesis of acceptable behavior in our modern society, which validates voyeurism as a 'normal' activity." (In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah)

Was it voyeurism that drove Lot's wife to look back? Was it her empathy for the depraved citizens of Sodom? Or was she being pulled toward her two married daughters who, the text reports (Genesis 19:14), refused to leave Sodom and were caught in the whirlwind of destruction? The Torah does not answer these questions. But the actions of Lot's wife draw our attention to the "ethics of looking," which must lead us to strike a balance between empathetic witnessing and voyeurism.

In the age of television shows like Survivor and Big Brother, we must agree with Antonelli that voyeurism has spun out of control and the urge to look at others in their most private moments, in the midst of pain and suffering, knows no bounds. And yet, surely we must question the notion of some commentators that looking at the existence of suffering in our society causes the pain of others to adhere to us like a disease. As Jews, we teach the contrary lesson: We must "know the heart of the stranger." Looking into the eyes of another panim el panim-"face-to-face"-is the first step to true knowing. If we turn from the beggar on the street, if we avert our eyes from the person with a disability or a disfigurement, if we fail to look at the wounded person lying in the hospital bed, then how can we ever truly hope to make a difference to those who are suffering in our midst?

We'll never know what motivated Lot's wife to turn around and look. But her tragedy highlights our challenge: to develop our own "ethic of observation" and to strive to move beyond voyeurism to an open-eyed view of the world that leads us l'taken olam―"to repair the world."

At the time of this writing in 2000, Rabbi Betsy Torop was the director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center in East Hills, NY.

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110

Originally published: