The Container of Manna and the Ark of the Testimony

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish

  1. What is found in the Kodesh Kodashim?

According to most of the commentators, in the Second Temple, the Kodesh Kodashim (“Holy of Holies”) was a room that contained nothing visible to human eyes, but at some stage the Divine Presence rested in it. In contrast, in the Mishkan during the desert wanderings, in the Mishkan in Shilo, and in the First Temple, the Kodesh Kodashim housed the ark of the covenant, inside of which were the luchot (both the second luchot and the broken pieces of the first luchot[1]), alongside[2] the Sefer Torah that Moshe wrote, and above them – the kaporet (covering) with the two keruvim.[3] In addition, the Kodesh Kodashim also held a container of manna, which Aharon placed there at God’s command, and Aharon’s staff, which had sprouted blossoms and almonds as a sign of having been chosen by God following the rebellion of Korach and his company (Bamidbar 17).

The text mentions all of these features in connection with the Mishkan that Moshe made in the wilderness, and Chazal explain that they also all existed in the Mishkan in Shilo and in the First Temple:

The container of manna, and the bowl of anointing oil, and Aharon’s staff with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Pelishtim sent as a gift honoring the God of Israel, were all to be found in the Kodesh Kodashim. (Tosefta, Yoma 2:15; Yoma 52b, and elsewhere).

Our focus here will be on the container of manna:

And Moshe said, “This is the thing which the Lord commands: Fill an omer of it to be kept for your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out from the land of Egypt.” And Moshe said to Aharon, “Take a jar, and put an omer-full of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept for your generations.” As the Lord commanded Moshe, so Aharon placed it before the Testimony, to be kept. (Shemot 16:32-34)

At this point in the narrative, the Mishkan has not yet been built, and the location of “the Testimony” is not clear. A plain reading of the text would suggest that the command to Moshe to place manna in a container to keep before God was actually given later on, after the Mishkan had been built and the Tablets of Testimony had been placed in the Kodesh Kodashim. The command appears here because it relates to and completes the unit on the manna.

  1. The container of manna before the Ark of the Covenant

The “container of manna” and the “ark of the covenant” are at the center of the life of every Jew – material sustenance (our equivalent of manna) and, above it, spiritual sustenance, the Torah. The blessing over bread and the blessing over the Torah are the only two blessings that are commanded explicitly in the Torah (Written Law). The combination of these two elements represents the ideal of Torah together with the Land of Israel, which sustains us with its produce and fruit by virtue of the rainfall. Concerning this combination we are told:

This led R. Shimon ben Yochai to say: The Torah was given for delving into only by those who eat manna. (Mekhilta De-Rashbi 13)

By the term “those who eat manna” R. Shimon bar Yochai refers to those who do not concern themselves excessively with physical sustenance:

R. Eliezer said: [The container of manna was meant] for the days of the prophet Yirmiyahu. When Yirmiyahu said to Israel, “Why do you not engage in Torah?,” they answered, “How then will we make a living?” At that time, he took out a bowl of manna and said, “‘O generation: see the word of the Lord…’ (Yirmiyahu 2:31). Your forefathers, who engaged in Torah – did they know how they would sustain themselves? Likewise you, too – if you engage in Torah, the Holy One will take care of your livelihood.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael, “Vayisa” 5)

There are other realms that bind together the “container of manna” and the “ark of the covenant,” which are housed together in the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim.

We find that a person who fulfills the above expectation of him is compared to a tree that is firmly planted, does not wither or dry out, and constantly yields fruit – a tree of life:

Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scorners; but whose delight is in the Lord’s Torah, and who meditates in His Torah day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, its leaf also shall not wither, and in whatever he does he shall prosper. (Tehillim 1:1-3)

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and for whom the Lord is his hope. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit. (Yirmiyahu 17:7-8)

The man depicted in Tehillim is one who meditates in the Torah. The depiction of him dwelling at the river that emerges from Eden sits well with another source:

It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and happy are those who hold it fast. (Mishlei 3:18)

The context in which this verse appears speaks of Divine wisdom, the wisdom of the Torah, and this is what is referred to as the “tree of life.”

Of course, the tree of life appears also in the story of the Garden of Eden, and there, too, we find keruvim:

So [God] drove out Adam, and He placed the keruvim at the east of the Garden of Eden, and the bright blade of a revolving sword to guard the way to the tree of life. (Bereishit 3:24)

The Garden of Eden is the first and most primal incarnation of the Temple. The keruvim guarding the way to the tree of life parallel the keruvim that guard the Sefer Torah and the Tablets of Testimony in the Kodesh Kodashim in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple.

The water that sustains and gives life to the tree planted on its banks – the human being who meditates on the Torah – is the river that emerges from Eden, and later also from the Temple, as we find in Yechezkel’s description of the tree of life:

And by the stream, upon its bank, on this side and on that side, shall grow every tree for food, whose leaf shall not wither, neither shall its fruit fail; it shall bring forth new fruit every month, because its waters have issued from the Sanctuary… (Yechezkel 47:12)

While in Tehillim we find a description of the man (ish) who meditates in the Torah, Yirmiyahu speaks of the man (gever) who trusts in God; he, too, is compared to the tree of life planted in the Garden of Eden or in the Temple. Trust in God characterizes those who ate manna, looking to the heavens in anticipation and supplication each day anew, relying on God for their sustenance in the same way that servants trust that their master will take care of their needs, or like children who know that they have a place at their father’s table, for they have nothing of their own. Once again, the Torah is paired with physical sustenance, and likewise for all future generations the Torah stands together with Eretz Yisrael; the blessing over the Torah is paired with the blessing recited after eating bread.

To put it differently, we might say that our two channels of communication with God are Torah and prayer. When we engage in Torah, we meditate on His words to us and try to fulfill them. When we engage in prayer, we ask that He hear our words and supplication to Him and fulfill them.

  1. The container of manna in the Garden of Eden

We mentioned above the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, symbolizing or alluding mainly to the Torah. The container of manna would seem to be alluded to in the “bedolach” (bdellium) mentioned there:

And the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium, and the shoham stone. (Bereishit 2:12)

And the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance was like that of bdellium. (Bamidbar 11:7).

Perhaps the container of manna is also hinted to in Adam’s expulsion from the Garden:

And to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to your wife and have eaten of the tree concerning which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it – cursed is the ground because of you; in sorrow you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you will return.” (Bereishit 3:17-19)

The severance from the tree of life finds expression in the decree of man’s death and his return to dust. The labor that he will have to exert in order to make a living is an expression of his severance from the container of manna providing blessed sustenance directly from God’s generous beneficence.

Adam was severed from the Kodesh Kodashim. What remains to him is the altar that stands outside. Kayin, his son, who spilled his brother’s blood in a fight over sacrifices to God, brought about a further severance from the altar, until the Divine Presence would come to rest once again in the tent of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah.


[1]  In the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6a), R. Yehuda ben Lakish maintains that the pieces of the first luchot were kept in a different ark. The subject is addressed by Rashi and Ramban (Devarim 10:1) and other Rishonim.

[2]  There is disagreement among the Tanna’im in this regard (Bava Batra 14a). R. Meir argues that the Sefer Torah was inside the Ark, while R. Yehuda maintains that it was on a shelf on the outside of the ark.

[3]  I have explained elsewhere that the keruvim in the First Temple were different from those that were built for the Mishkan.