Manna from Heaven in More Ways than One


The naturalistic and fantastical approaches to conceptualizing the nature of the manna points to the recurrent Jewish impulse to interpret, both in terms of the Torah’s plain meaning, and in terms that will inspire spiritual seeking.

Parashat Be’ha’alotekha
Sefer Bemidbar is filled with narrative episodes following the spectacles of exodus and revelation. The desert sojourn has begun — real life with its attendant difficulties.
Kvetching is a regular feature of the stories that follow, as the Israelites endure the hardships that inevitably accompany 40 years in the desert — uncomfortable mattresses and a repetitive menu. Some of their complaints arise from fuzzy nostalgia, as they recall the luxuries they imagine had been their lot when they were still slaves in Egypt.
Thus, we read in this week’s parashah: Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. Now our throats are dry … (Numbers 11:4–6).
Mirage-like memories seduce them into griping about the manna that descends for them miraculously every day. In the biblical description, the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance was like the appearance of bdellium. The people would go about and gather it and grind it between millstones or pound it in a pestle and cook it in a cauldron and make it into cakes. Its taste was like the creaminess of oil. When the dew would descend upon the camp at night, the manna would come down upon it (Numbers 11:6– 10).
Psalms 78:25 already refers to the manna as bread of the angels. Speculating about an historical and naturalistic basis for the story, some modern Bible scholars have suggested that the manna is a natural substance formed by the activity of a type of plant lice upon the yellowish-white flaky sap of the tamarisk tree, commonly found in the wilderness of northern Arabia (Childs, The Book of Exodus).
More far-fetched modern readings have suggested that since the people enjoyed a heavenly vision after consuming the manna, the cause may have been from psilocybin features that can grow in fungus, possibly from grain that may have kept poorly in storage (Merkur, The Mystery of Manna).
In rabbinic legend, the manna becomes a magical phenomenon: Precious stones and jewelry fell along with it; adopting various flavors just as mother’s milk does; manifesting multiple colors like a demon; age-appropriate tastes and textures; the ability to be absorbed throughout the body’s limbs without need for elimination; encased in a box-like structure of dew; bearing enormous proportions; and so on (BT Yoma 75–76a).
Philo, the ancient Jewish philosopher, explained that sustenance descending from the heavens could only refer to divine wisdom. This line of thinking was recast in the ancient midrash (Mekhilta on Exodus 13:17): “[God said], ‘I will cause them to go about in the wilderness for forty years so that they may eat the manna and drink the water of the well, and the Torah will be assimilated into their bodies.’” The manna here is idealized as a perfect wisdom delivery vehicle, concealed within a foodstuff.
The kabbalists of the Zohar expanded upon this interpretation, viewing the consumption of manna as a method for internalizing divine wisdom, a transformation of holiness into corporeality.
“All those scions of faith went out and gathered and blessed the supernal Name over it. That manna emitted a fragrance like all the spices of the Garden of Eden, since it had flowed through there in descending. Once they placed it in front of them, they tasted whatever taste they desired and blessed the supernal King. Then it was blessed in each one’s belly, and he would contemplate and know above, gazing upon divine Wisdom. Therefore they were called Generation of Knowledge. These were scions of faith, and to them was given Torah, to contemplate her and know her ways.” (Zohar 62b; transl. from The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vol. 4, p. 338.)
Here, the manna is not only a miraculous food from the blessed holy one; it is the medium through which one comes to have a reciprocal relationship with God. True, it could have whatever taste one wanted, but it was only through spiritual contemplation of divine beneficence that one would come to know celestial wisdom.
The naturalistic and fantastical approaches to conceptualizing the nature of the manna points to the recurrent Jewish impulse to interpret, both in terms of the Torah’s plain meaning, and in terms that will inspire spiritual seeking. On a mundane level, we think of tasting and eating as common activities, practices that nourish our bodies and perhaps serve as tableaux in which we enjoy the company of family and friends.
The rabbis, and the kabbalists in particular, challenge us to think with humility about the sources of our food, but also to reimagine eating as a way in which we transform our bodies and minds through interaction with the world around us.
Rabbi Dr. Joel Hecker is associate professor of Jewish mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and author of Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah, and of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Vols 11-12 (forthcoming 2016, 2017). The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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