The Manna

  • Rav Michael Hattin



Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi


The Manna

By Rav Michael Hattin





The newfound freedom of the Hebrews is short lived, as Pharaoh and his charioteers quickly recover their composure and resolve, and offer chase.  Having been enjoined by God in the meantime to encamp along the banks of the Sea of Reeds, Bnei Yisrael unexpectedly find themselves hemmed in by its impassable waters.  Bemoaning their bitter fate but paralyzed to act, the people cry out angrily to God.  Heeding their cries, God causes the sea to be miraculously opened up by a strong eastern wind, and Bnei Yisrael traverse through its midst on dry land.  The pursuing hosts of Pharaoh are lured in after them, but are then caught by the returning waters and perish.  Led by Moshe, the people of Israel spontaneously erupt in triumphant song, as the dreaded Egyptian chariots and horsemen wash up on along the shores, lifeless and still. 


Leaving the specter of Egypt behind forever, Bnei Yisrael are led away from the Sea, and enter into the wilderness of Shur.  Their three-day journey is through arid land, for they encounter no sources of water along the way.  Coming next to Mara, they discover a source of brackish water, undrinkable due to its bitterness.  The people cry out to Moshe, and God directs him to sweeten the waters by casting a branch into them.  Coming next to Eilim, the people set up camp at the site of twelve springs and seventy palm trees, but they do not remain there long.  Journeying from Eilim, they enter the foreboding wilderness of Seen, exactly one month to the day after their departure from Egypt.  Again, the people are sorely tested with hunger, but this time their cry is tinged with disdain, as they recall with yearning their full stomachs in Egypt: "Bnei Yisrael exclaimed: 'If only we would have perished by God's hand in Egypt, as we sat by the flesh pots and consumed bread until we were satiated!  Why did you take this multitude out into the wilderness, only in order that we might perish by starvation?!'" (Shemot 16:3).


This series of episodes associated with the journey from the Sea, unprecedented for its underlying tones of despair and desperation, quite ironically pivots around the theme of survival.  Scarcely a month beforehand, the people had jubilantly left Egypt, flushed with freedom and a spirit of abandon, understandably indifferent to their route of escape or ultimate destination, and only too happy to be leaving at all.  Surely, no one was overly concerned at that time with questions of sustentation or survival, for how else to explain their inadequate preparations and meager provisions at the time of their liberation?   Entering the solitude of the wilderness, in fact, must have initially seemed to them a welcome relief from the clamor and commotion of the brick pits, but hunger and thirst abruptly appeared as unwelcome adjuncts.  Thus, as they leave civilization behind, cruel and execrable but nevertheless familiar, the euphoria of the Exodus quickly begins to dissipate, to be unexpectedly replaced with an oppressive feeling of dread.



God's Response – The Manna


"God said to Moshe: 'Behold, I will cause bread to rain down from the heavens.  The people will go out daily to gather it, in order that I might test them to see if they will follow my Torah or not.  On the sixth day they will prepare what they have gathered, and it will be double the amount that they gather on the other days…'" (Shemot 16:4-5).  Responding to the people's cries of despondency, God indicates to them that they will be sustained through rather unusual intervention, for He will cause their food to quite literally fall from the sky.  Sure enough, the next morning the people awake to find the ground covered by a thick layer of dew.  As the dew vaporizes in the early morning heat, a peculiar sight greets the people, for masking the ground far and wide is a fine frost-like film.  Unsure what to make of it, the people are informed by Moshe that 'this is the bread that God has given you to eat.'  Gathering the mysterious material, which upon closer examination has the texture of coriander seed but with a white appearance, the people discover that not only is it edible and filling, but also savory, for its taste resembles that of honey-coated wafers.


Thus begins the remarkable account of the 'Manna,' the unconventional staple of the people's wilderness diet.  Beginning to fall a few short weeks after leaving Egypt, the manna accompanies the people all the way to Canaan, for it is not until they formally enter that land that it ceases to descend (see Yehoshua/Joshua 5:12).  Temporally, the manna mirrors the new cycle of time that Bnei Yisrael are proscribed to adopt, for it falls for six days but not on the seventh day of the Shabbat. Thematically, the manna constitutes the greatest of God's acts of intervention, "for this wonder continued unabated for forty years, in contrast to God's other miracles, most of which were temporary" (Avraham Ibn Ezra, 12th century Spain, commentary to 16:5). 



The Geographical Setting – The Wilderness


The Torah notes a number of curious features concerning this uncommon food, and we shall attempt to understand all of them as part of a larger and more inclusive idea.  The reader is recommended to peruse the relevant narrative, which appears in Shemot Chapter Sixteen.  We shall begin our analysis by noting the obvious linkage between the manna and the Exodus on the one hand, and the entry into the land of Canaan on the other.  It is only with Egypt safely behind them, with Pharaoh's mighty war machine smashed on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, that the manna makes its appearance.  As the horrors of servitude and deprivation are transformed into fond reminisces in the people's collective memory, as the fleeting recollections of Egyptian bondage grow more attractive with each passing day, and as the vast expanse of the barren wilderness looms large and ominous before them, the people cry out for food.  God responds, and provides for their nutritional needs with the manna.  It continues to fall with predictable constancy for almost forty years, but as soon as the people cross the River Jordan to possess the land of Canaan, it abruptly stops.


In other words, we may say that the manna is associated with a time and a place, where that time is the period between Egypt and Canaan, and that place is the wilderness that geographically separates the one from the other.  Whatever the manna is about, its unmistakable connection to the wilderness experience is revealed as its defining aspect, for it is exclusively within the confines of that place that it is experienced.  After the people enter the land of Canaan, the manna lives on only as a symbol, as a vivid memory of an encounter that must have been transformative.



The Manna's Unusual Features


As the people awaken expectantly that first morning to be greeted by the night's unusual precipitation, they are told by Moshe to gather the manna "each person conforming to his requirements, one omer measure per person, in accordance with the number of people in the household" (Shemot 16:16).  The people begin to gather, some less and some more, but when they measure their efforts, they unexpectedly discover that "he that gathered much did not exceed (an omer per person), and he that gathered little did not fall short, for everyone gathered according to his needs!"  In other words, not only is the manna presented as completely unique in terms of its advent and appearance, but also in terms of its volumetric qualities, for no matter how much or how little a person attempts to gather, an omer per person is what is accumulated.


Curiously, Moshe warns the people not to leave any of the mysterious food over until morning.  Those people who do not heed the directive (were there many?) discover to their unpleasant surprise that the remaining manna becomes putrid, full of maggots, and quite inedible as a result.  The only exception to this rule occurs when the people gather a double measure on the sixth day, for that portion that they leave over for the morrow's Sabbath, a day during which the manna never falls, retains its redolence and flavor.


Additionally, the manna must be gathered early in the morning, for once the sun begins to wax hot, the manna left behind on the ground melts away and disappears. 


Although attempts have been made throughout history to identify the manna with real, naturally occurring substances associated with the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula (see for instance the commentary of Ibn Ezra to 16:13), the above features should make it clear that it is in fact an unprecedented and miraculous material.  It should be considered that all four of the manna's most unusual above-noted characteristics are associated with the process of its collection.  It must be gathered early before it melts, it defies attempts to be accurately gauged in the field, it cannot be left overnight, and its amount announces the advent of the Shabbat.  How are we to understand these qualities?



The Underlying Theme


As Bnei Yisrael enter the confines of the wilderness to be confronted for the first time with genuine hunger and thirst, they naturally react with disappointment and despair.  Suddenly, the servitude of Egypt seems to them less onerous, if only because a slave's insufficient rations are predictable and dependable.  God addresses their needs and fears, and a miraculous substance rains down from the heavens to sustain them.  Blanketing the camp all around, the manna is easily scooped up by the famished masses, who greedily gather it for their households.  As the sun ascends, however, the manna vaporizes with the morning mists like a desert mirage, leaving not a trace of its superabundance.  Any hopes that the people had of finding it in the field at a later time are thus dashed.


Returning to their tents with their prize, the people are puzzled to discover that in spite of their attempts to accumulate more than their needs, the manna is exactly sufficient to sustain them according to measure, neither less nor more.  Most telling of all, any portion that the people leave over for another day becomes putrid and loathsome. 


In other words, try as they might to hoard the manna for another day, it cannot be done.  It neither lends itself to being gathered all day, nor to being amassed in large amounts, nor to being left over at all for tomorrow.  The manna therefore speaks of God's continuous sustaining intervention, rather than of man's illusions of single handedly ensuring his self-preservation and prosperity.  The manna indicates that, at the core of the matter, a person's survival is not solely a function of his own efforts, but of God's saving providence.  There is no manna to be saved for another day, for each day's new provisions are a function of God's ceaseless grace.  Most of the time, we labor mightily under the illusion that if only we gather more, acquire more, save more, and hoard more, we can be sure of our future and of our ability to survive.  The manna forcefully indicates that this is not necessarily the case, for often our painstakingly plotted plans go up in proverbial smoke, leaving behind the cinders of our dreams of invincibility.  What sustains a man is not only the bread that he consumes, but the trust in God's pledge that is the fertile ground from which that bread grows.



The Ramban's Insightful Words


As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains: "The manna constituted a great trial for the people, for they had no provisions and could secure no other means of survival in the inhospitable wilderness, except for the manna.  They had never before encountered this food, neither they nor their ancestors, and it would fall only according to their daily needs.  How they hungered for it!  In spite of all this, they willingly followed God into the uninhabited wilderness…Surely, God could have led them by way of a settled route.  Instead, He guided them into the snake and scorpion-infested wasteland, denying them the possibility of securing anything but this heavenly bread, in order to try them and to bring them much goodness at the end, that they might trust in Him forever" (commentary to 16:4).  In other words, the Ramban understands that the encounter of the manna goes hand in hand with the wilderness, for to experience both is to come to realize that only God can provide.  To be led through the wilderness is to feel the tenuous truth of our temporary lives, and to understand that many of our grandest material desires are superfluous.  To taste the manna is to comprehend that what matters most is not the striving after wealth that in the end may not save, but rather the quest for an abiding trust in the Source of life Who alone preserves and sustains.


It is in light of the above that the Torah's directive to store an omer's worth of the manna becomes comprehensible: "Moshe said to Aharon: 'take an urn and fill it with an omer's measure of manna,'" so that the people might see the bread that God provided as food when they left the land of Egypt.  In other words, the journey from Egypt to Canaan represents a temporary situation, but the lessons of faith that it furnishes are eternal.  The people are not called upon to dwell in the wilderness in perpetuity, to forever submit to the undeniable truth of God's miraculous intervention.  They are to arrive in a tangible land, there to build real lives that will most often be characterized by mundane pursuits and worldly strivings.  But to keep alive a memory of the wilderness is to always be aware that the manna is no mirage, but rather the truest description of God's ongoing providence, in the presence of which we are nourished, nurtured, and secured.


Shabbat Shalom