We learn from
the sources that manna was the most miraculous food:
easy to pick (a
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.
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
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]
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.
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.
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
Some read leshad as le'shed (of a demon) - even as the demon changes
himself into many shapes, so manna changed into many flavors.
"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."
"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)
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."
third illustration in this article is inspired by a similar illustration
in the Birds' Head Haggadah, S. Germany, c.1300.