Manna and Mystical Eating
Soon after the Israelites leave Egypt, God rains manna rain down from the sky on a daily basis to provide them with food:
שמות טז:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם וְיָצָא הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ…
Exod 16:4 And YHWH said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion…
טז:יג …וּבַבֹּקֶר הָיְתָה שִׁכְבַת הַטַּל סָבִיב לַמַּחֲנֶה. טז:יד וַתַּעַל שִׁכְבַת הַטָּל וְהִנֵּה עַל פְּנֵי הַמִּדְבָּר דַּק מְחֻסְפָּס דַּק כַּכְּפֹר עַל הָאָרֶץ. טז:טו וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו מָן הוּא כִּי לֹא יָדְעוּ מַה הוּא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֲלֵהֶם הוּא הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה…
16:13 … In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. 16:14 When the layer of dew lifted, and look, on the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 16:15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “Man hu?” (“What is it?”) for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which YHWH has given you to eat….
The Bible is rather unclear about what this food actually is: Exodus describes its taste as “like a sweet wafer,” while Numbers describes it as tasting like לשד השמן, possibly “rich cream” (NJPS) though it could also mean “oily cake” (NRSV) or “butter cake” (HALOT).
Psalm 78 emphasizes the food’s heavenly origin:
תהלים עח:כג וַיְצַו שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל
וְדַלְתֵי שָׁמַיִם פָּתָח.
עח:כד וַיַּמְטֵר עֲלֵיהֶם מָן לֶאֱכֹל
וּדְגַן שָׁמַיִם נָתַן לָמוֹ.
עח:כה לֶחֶם אַבִּירִים אָכַל
אִישׁ צֵידָה שָׁלַח לָהֶם לָשֹׂבַע.
Ps 78:23 So He commanded the skies above,
He opened the doors of heaven
78:24 and rained manna upon them for food,
giving them heavenly grain.
78:25 Each man ate the bread of angels;
He sent them provision in plenty.
In short, manna is not like ordinary bread; it is the bread of angels, which falls miraculously from heaven at God’s command, to nourish the Israelites in the wilderness.
Complaint about Manna
And yet, in the book of Numbers we learn that not all the people are happy with the manna, as consuming the same food every day for forty years is dull:
במדבר יא:ו וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה אֵין כֹּל בִּלְתִּי אֶל הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ.
Num 11:6 Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
The complaint here is offered against the background of a kind of “fuzzy nostalgia” about the variety of food available in Egypt, mirage-like memories that seduce them into griping about the manna that descends for them miraculously every day and ignoring the fact that in Egypt they were slaves.
If the Israelites in the story were less impressed with the manna than one would have hoped, later readers found the manna to be an amazing miracle, and the story of the manna has inspired exegetes through the ages to contemplate the substance, experience, meaning, and spiritual potential that accompanied this food.
Allegorical Explanation: Philo and John
The Second Temple period philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (ca. 25 B.C.E – 50 C.E.), understood the manna from heaven as symbolizing wisdom (On the Changing of Names [De Mut. Nom.], 259-60):
Of what food can He rightly say that it is rained from heaven, save of heavenly wisdom which is sent from above on souls which yearn for virtue…
Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John (early 2nd cent. C.E.) ratchets up the significance of the metaphor of heavenly bread by presenting Jesus as the “authentic” bread of life:
47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and [still] they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Jesus is saying that the manna was physical sustenance that kept the Israelites alive temporarily, whereas he is the real “bread from heaven,” and only belief in him will ensure a person’s eternal life.
Thus, in the Hellenistic sources, the manna is understood as simple food on one level, but as an allegory for something more than this on a deeper level. In Philo, it is an allegory for how the Israelites received wisdom from God; for the Gospel of John, it is an allegory for how a person’s acceptance of God’s “real” bread from heaven, procures life everlasting.
Manna for Torah Study
The rabbis do not read the manna as an allegory, but as real food provided by God so that the Israelites would not have to toil for their food, and would have the opportunity to study Torah. Thus, in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, a third century halakhic midrash on Exodus, we read (Petichta to Vayhi Beshalach, Lauterbach trans.):
…אמר הב”ה אם אני מביא עכשיו את ישראל לארץ מיד מחזיקים אדם בשדהו ואדם בכרמו והם בטלים מן התורה אלא אקיפם במדבר ארבעים שנה שיהיו אוכלין מן ושותין מי הבאר והתורה נבללת בגופן
…But God said: “If I bring Israel into the land now, every one of them will immediately take hold of his field or his vineyard and neglect the Torah. But I will make them go round about through the desert for forty years so that, having the manna to eat and the water of the well to drink, they will absorb the Torah (lit. the Torah will be assimilated into their bodies).
God’s supporting Israel with manna gave this generation the unique opportunity to study Torah full time. Moreover, the phrase “Torah absorbed in their bodies” implies something mythical/mystical/magical about the manna itself; perhaps the purity or holiness of the manna facilitates the Israelites’ absorption of Torah.
The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael further claims that the manna had magical properties (Vayisa 3):
אל תיקרי אבירים אלא איברים לחם שנטוח באיברים אמר להם המן הזה שאתם אוכלים נטוח באיבריכם
“Do not read abirim (Ps 78:25), angels (or nobles), rather eivarim, limbs. He said to them, ‘This manna that you eat will be absorbed into your limbs.’”
According to this, manna is the perfect food that gets absorbed into the body entirely, with no extraneous material. In other words, the Israelites would not have needed to defecate while in the wilderness as long as they ate only manna.
Based on various derashot that will not be unpacked here, the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 75a-76a) lists a number of other magical properties of the manna such as:
- Precious stones and jewelry fell along with it:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב…: מלמד שירד להם לישראל עם המן תכשיטי נשים… …אמר רבי יונתן: …מלמד שירדו להם לישראל אבנים טובות ומרגליות עם המן.
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav…: “This teaches that women’s jewelry came down with the manna for the Israelites…” …R. Jonathan said: “…This teaches that precious jewels and pearls descended with the manna for the Israelites.”
- It has multiple flavors:
טעם כל המינין טעמו במן
They tasted all flavors when tasting the manna.
- It rained down in enormous proportions:
מן שירד להן לישראל היה גבוה ששים אמה
The manna that fell for the Israelites was taller than sixty cubits (=90 feet).
The rabbis here confect the manna as a supernatural and magical phenomenon. These interpretations catch the rabbis in a more fanciful mode, aggrandizing the manna hyperbolically to spin an appealing tale. In fact, Sa’adia Gaon declares that supplying food in the wilderness for all the Israelites for forty years was the greatest miracle of the exodus story (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, introduction, part 6):
הרי לדעתי ענין אות המן המופלאה שבכל האותות
For in my opinion, the sign of the manna is more impressive than any of the other signs.
Manna and Idealized Eating in the Zohar
The interpretation of manna as a magical food with spiritual import takes a great leap forward in the Zohar(13th c.), the Jewish tradition’s most influential kabbalistic text. The Zohar operates with an exegetical style that can be described as mystical midrash, which is both systematic and dynamic, with bumps in the literary text—including details of the Torah’s letter-size, cantillation notes, and ambiguous syntax—all serving as springboards for esoteric interpretation.
On eating the manna, the Zohar stresses ontological transformation, viewing the consumption of manna as a method for internalizing divine wisdom, a transmuting of holiness into corporeality, for those who were scions of faith:
כל אינון בני מהימנותא נפקי ולקטי ומברכאן שמא עלאה עליה וההוא מנא הוה סליק ריחא ככל בוסמין דגנתא דעדן דהא ביה אתמשך ונחית לתתא. שויוה לקמיהו, בכל טעמא דאינון בעו הכי טעימין ומברכין למלכא עלאה וכדין מתברך במעוי והוה מסתכל וידע לעילא ואסתכי בחכמתא עלאה.
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.
The manna contains wisdom which enters the person who consumes it. The explanation for this process of descent of divine overflow and its materialization on earth derives from the Neoplatonism that exerts a prominent influence upon kabbalistic thought.
In Neoplatonism, all divine being, holiness, blessing, and light flows down from recondite reaches within the Godhead through a series of stages (sefirot) that comprise Divinity; from there they proceed further through subdivine realms, including the angelic. It is in this interstitial place that one finds the Garden of Eden—a site within a spiritual, rather than earthly, topography. Once it is consumed, and the scion of faith has blessed God for the delicious many-flavored manna, the once-ethereal manna receives an influx of divine emanation in response, and divine blessing penetrates and permeates the manna-eater, turning his belly into a site of sanctity.
With body transformed, the individual manna-eater can turn attention towards divine wisdom, a spiritual attainment that surpasses straightforward knowledge of Torah given at Sinai. In other words, mystical plenitude is an extension of physical plenitude, engendering a psychosomatic experience, of ensouled or spiritualized body—a translation of physical experience into mystical encounter.
This is why the desert generation is considered special:
ועל דא אקרון דור דעה, ואלין הוו בני מהימנותא ולהון אתיהיב אורייתא לאסתכלא בה ולמנדע ארחהא.
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.
Nevertheless, this was only how the manna affected the scions of faith. For those Israelites who were not scions of faith, the passage explains, the manna would have the opposite effect:
ואינון דלא אשתכחו בני מהימנותא מה כתיב בהו, (במדבר י”א: 8) שטו העם ולקטו וגו’. מאי שטו, שטותא הוו נסבי לגרמייהו בגין דלא הוו בני מהימנותא.
Of those who were not found to be scions of faith, what is written? The people would roam around and gather it…(Numbers 11:8). What is the meaning of would roam around (shatu)? They acquired foolishness (shatuta), because they were not scions of faith.
Manna from heaven turns out to be a potent foodstuff, giving divine wisdom to the faithful and divine foolishness to the unfaithful. In fact, the passage opens with R. Shimon bar Yochai claiming that God actually used the manna to distinguish between the faithful and the unfaithful:
רבי שמעון אמר ת”ח עד לא יהב קב”ה אורייתא לישראל אבחין בין אינון בני מהימנותא ובין אינון חייביא דלאו אינון בני מהימנותא ולא קיימי באורייתא. ובמה אבחין להו, במן כמה דאתמר.
Rabbi Shimon said, “Come and see: Before the blessed Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, He distinguished between the scions of faith and the wicked who were not scions of faith and would not abide by the Torah. How did He differentiate them? By the manna, as has been said.
The Mysticism of Divine Blessing in Every Meal
This psychosomatic ideal in the context of eating appears in the Zohar’s treatment of the classic halakhic problem related to Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace after Meals), namely, how halakha determines when a person is sated:
פתח רבי חייא ואמר ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את יי’ אלהיך (דברים ח). וכי עד לא אכיל בר נש שבעא וימלא כריסו לא יברך ליה לקב”ה.
Rabbi Hiyya opened, saying, “When you have eaten and are sated, you shall bless YHWH your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). Now is a person really not going to bless the blessed Holy One unless he eats to satiation and has filled his belly?
According to Jewish law, one recites the Grace after Meals upon consuming an olive’s-volume of bread, rather than after actual satiety. If so, Rabbi Hiyya wonders, why does the verse specify satiety as the trigger?
אי הכי במאי נוקים ואכלת ושבעת ובתר וברכת.
If so, how can we establish “when you have eaten and are sated,” and then, “you shall bless”?
Responding to the contradiction between Scripture and norm, he contends that the blessing should follow upon either satiety, or a contemplation-induced satiety.
אלא אפילו לא ייכול בר נש אלא כזית ורעותיה איהו עליה וישוי ליה לההוא מיכלא עקרא דמיכליה שבעא אקרי
Well, even if a person eats only as much as an olive, and his intention is upon it and he considers that food his essential food, it is called satiation,
דכתיב פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון (תהלים קמה). ומשביע לכל חי אכילה לא כתיב אלא רצון, ההוא רעוא דשוי על ההוא אכילה שבעא אקרי.
as is written: “Opening Your hand and sating the intention of every living thing” (Psalms 145:16). It is not written “and sating the appetite of every living thing,” but rather “the intention”—the intention that he focused on that eating is called satiation.
According to halakha, eating an olive-sized amount is enough to require the blessing even though it is insufficient to satisfy a person’s appetite. Why is this “satiety”? In Rabbi Hiyya’s homily, “satiety” emerges as a technical term, not necessarily referring to an experience of physical fullness. He explains that if the person eating focuses attention on even a morsel and considers it his sustenance, then once he eats he is considered sated because he has mystically aligned his intention with the divine overflow that suffuses the food. Through the liturgical recitation of birkat ha-mazon, the diner’s soul encounters Divinity, in the fusing of human and divine intention (or more precisely, “will”).
Yet physical sensation is not entirely irrelevant; it is important as a contemplative cue:
דאפילו דלית קמי דבר נש אלא ההוא זעיר בכזית ולא יתיר הא רעותא דשבעא שוי עליה. ובגין כך ומשביע לכל חי רצון, כתיב רצון ולא אכילה. ועל דא וברכת, ודאי. ואתחייב בר נש לברכא ליה לקב”ה בגין למיהב חדוא לעילא.
For even if there is nothing in front of a person except a little bit—the size of an olive and nothing more—he has set the intention of satiety upon it. Therefore, “and sating the intention of every living thing”—it is written “intention” and not “appetite.” Consequently, “you shall bless”—surely! A person is obligated to bless the blessed Holy One, in order to give joy above.”
The satiety invoked by the verse, then, refers to a particular kind of mystical intention that actually generates a physical experience. Therefore, blessing is appropriate and required, and furthermore, such blessing delights God. The Zohar teaches about induced satiation, a bodily feeling of mystical fullness—contemplative application of mystical intention (kavvanah) to one’s meal results in both a unitive mystical experience and a physical sensation of satiation.
The Mechanism of Induced Satiation
What is the mechanism in Zoharic kabbalah that enables satiation by a morsel? In Steven Katz’s words, “beliefs shape experience, just as experience shapes belief.” What is the underlying assumption that enables Rabbi Hiyya to revaluate a physical sensation as a spiritual one? The explanation lies in the textualization of the kabbalistic body, a kabbalistic phenomenon that has been examined extensively by Elliot Wolfson.
The kabbalists correlate the Torah and its commandments with the human body, so that performance of a commandment results in an arousal of the corresponding spiritual aspect of one’s body. The result in our case is that the kabbalist eats the tidbit (literally, olive-volume) before him and his visceral response, informed by his knowledge of rabbinic law, is to feel full.
The translation from physical experience to spiritual experience is mirrored by a translation from spiritual experience to physical experience. The morsel is a meeting point for God’s intention and human intention, with mystical convergence occurring in both soul and body. Food has “descended” and a blessing has “ascended,” resulting in the encounter in the word intention (ratson).
Confirmation for this reading comes from the Zohar’s use of the term “surely” (vadai). What appears to the casual reader to be merely rhetorical emphasis is employed throughout theZohar as a technical term that signifies the ontological crossing from human to divine realms.
Reimagining Eating through Manna and Birkat Ha-Mazon
In this second text we see how the Zohar has taken a somewhat conventional exegetical dilemma—a gap between halakhic norm and peshat (plain meaning)—and turns it into an opportunity for mystical engagement in the ostensibly mundane act of eating. No longer is it only those who eat angels’ bread that unite with Divinity—the idealized Generation of the Wilderness—but the common person who aspires to discern the supernal within the worldly.
To the extent that mysticism connotes bridging the chasm between divine and human realms, manna is a wonderful test case for illuminating the possibility of convergence between these domains, occurring within the very personhood and body of the mystic. To paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, manna is good to think with: an instance of material that traverses the heavenly-earthly divide, leading ancient writers, rabbis, and kabbalists to ponder those two spheres and the means of dissolving their boundaries. But it is not only celestial food that excites the imagination of the authorship of the Zohar as it contemplates biblical narrative and strictures regarding eating. Even the familiar Grace after Meals is transformed into a vehicle for a psychosomatic ideal.
In the Zohar, key terms from the biblical text—rain, bread, heavens, satiation—are filtered through the medieval philosophical and kabbalistic traditions to produce teachings that invite readers to reimagine themselves through the simple daily act of eating. Indeed, it is this populistic desire to promote piety and devotion that led to the impulse to disseminate these esoteric teachings.
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Prof. Joel Hecker is Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He received his Ph.D. in Judaic Studies from New York University in 1996, and his rabbinic ordination and a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University in 1990. He is the author of Volumes 11 and (with Nathan Wolski) Volume 12 of The Zohar: Pritzker Edition and is the author of Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah (Wayne State University Press, 200
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