We learn from the sources that manna was the most miraculous food:

  • easy to pick (a seed)
  • easy to spot (white )
  • clean (since it fell on a layer of dew)
  • a most versatile fare (eaten raw or cooked)
  • easy to swallow (like cream/oil in taste).

And yet, the apparently contradictory versions in the Torah regarding the manna leave us rather confused.

We wonder:
  • Did the manna taste like bread, like honey, or like oil?
  • Did the dew fall upon the manna or did the manna fall upon the dew?
  • Did the manna arrive as bread, unbaked dough, or did the people grind it?
  • Did the manna fall inside the camp or did the people have to out to gather it?

In attempting to reconcile the varying traditions, the rabbis made manna ever more wondrous and special. Thus, in the midrash, we read the following descriptions:

bread, manna, oil and honey

Young men tasted in it the taste of bread, old people the taste of honey, and infants the taste of oil [since bread was difficult for old people and infants to chew][1]

For the righteous, it came right down to the doors of their tents; ordinary people had to go out and gather it; but the wicked had to go about to and fro to gather it.[2]

The righteous received it as [baked] bread, ordinary Israelites as unbaked dough, and the wicked as grain yet to be ground in a hand mill.[2]

But the manna was even more wondrous than that....
And the taste of it was the taste of a cake (leshad) baked with oil." Rabbi Abbahu said: Read not leshad (cake) but shad (breast). Hence, just as an infant, whenever he touches the breast, finds many flavors in it, so it was with manna. Whenever Israel ate it, so manna changed into many flavors.

Some read leshad as le'shed (of a demon) - even as the demon changes himself into many shapes, so manna changed into many flavors.[2]

"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies (Psalms 23:5). Said Issi ben Judah: "The manna that came down for Israel piled up to such a height that all kings of the east and west could see it."[3]

"And as the sun waxed hot, it melted." When the sun shone upon the manna, it began to melt and formed rivulets which flowed into the Great Sea. Harts, gazelles, roebuck, and all kinds of other animals would come and drink from the rivulets. The nations of the world would then hunt these animals, eat them, and tasting in them the taste of the manna that came down for Israel, and say: 'Blessed is the people who have it so.'" (Psalms 155:15)
Happy are the people
*    *    *

Prof. Jacob Milgrom offers us a scientific explanation:

The manna has been identified with a natural substance formed in the wilderness of northern Arabia. There is a type of tamarisk plant, which is often attacked by a particular type of plant lice (Trabutina manniara and Najococcus serpentinus). When the insect punctures the fruit of the tree, it excretes a yellowish-white flake or ball formed from the tree's sap. During the warmth of the day, this substance melts, but it congeals when it is cold. It has a sweet taste. The natives gather these pellets/cakes in early morning, and cook them to provide a sort of bread. The food decays quickly and attracts ants. The annual crop in the Sinai Peninsula is exceedingly small and some years fails quickly.

The description in Exodus 16 corresponds remarkably:

Writes Milgrom: "If the identification is correct, its ephemeral and undependable nature - appearing irregularly and only for several hours a day - would have stamped it as supernatural, originating in heaven. In Scripture, however, the food itself, as well as its appearance, is a miracle."[4]

The third illustration in this article is inspired by a similar illustration
in the Birds' Head Haggadah, S. Germany, c.1300.
footnotes [1] Exodus Rabba 25:3 [Back]
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75a [Back]
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 76a [Back]
[4] Commentary to Leviticus, JPS translation, 1996 [Back]

Barnes & Noble linkThe midrashim above, translated by William Braude, were taken from The Book of Legends (translation of Sefer ha-Aggadah, ed. Bialik and Ravnitzky), Schocken Books © 1992; they are reprinted with permission of the publisher.

JPS linkProf. Milgrom's comments appear in the commentary to the New JPS Translation of the Torah © 1990, and are reprinted with the publisher's permission.



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