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Manna as Mnemonic (Beshalach)

At the center of this week’s Parshah, Beshalach, lies the “episode of the mann” (Exod. 16:1-36). One month after leaving Egypt, Bnei Yisrael’s food supplies begin to dwindle. Afraid that they will die of famine, the people bitterly complain against Moshe and Aharon for leading them into the wilderness. Hashem responds to these complaints by raining bread from heaven for Bnei Yisrael to eat. This bread, called “manna” (or “mann”), falls once a day, and very precise guidelines govern when and how it is to be gathered. Hashem imposes these guidelines upon Bnei Yisrael “so that I can test whether or not they will follow my teaching” (Exod. 16:4). He feeds them the mann throughout their forty years in the wilderness.

1344808957177-elsolCentral to the episode of the mann is the theme of “memory.” This connection is made explicit in at least two respects: (1) at the end of the episode itself, Hashem commands Aharon to preserve a portion of the mann “so that future generations may see the bread that I fed you in the desert” (Exod. 16:32); (2) at the end of his life, as Bnei Yisrael are posed to enter into the land of Israel, Moshe adjures them to always remember the miracle of the mann (Deut. 8:2-3). Yet there may also be a third, subtler way in which the mann expresses the theme of “memory”—not as the object which must itself be remembered, but rather, as that which does the reminding. Specifically, the story of the mann, in this week’s Parshah, seems curiously reminiscent of an episode from the end of last week’s Parshah: the story of the “Passover sacrifice” (Exod. 12:1-51). Consider:

  • Bnei Yisrael clamor for food on the “fifteenth day of the second month” (Exod. 16:1). The Passover sacrifice had been consumed on the fifteenth day of the first month, exactly one month prior (Exod. 12:6-8—note that the Hebrew day begins at nightfall). Indeed, it is precisely because the provisions prepared on the night of that sacrifice run out a month later that the people now find themselves starving (see Exod. 12:39 and Rashi on Exod. 16:1, s,v, ba-hamisha assar yom”).
  • Bnei Yisrael gather as an “entire community” [כל עדת בני ישראל] to complain about their lack of food (Exod. 16:2). The last time Bnei Yisrael had gathered as an “entire community” [כל עדת בני ישראל] was when they offered the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 12:6).
  • Bnei Yisrael grumble: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, back when we sat by pots of meat…” (Exod. 16:3). Those who actually did “die” by the “hand of the Lord” in Egypt were killed during the plague of the firstborn—the plague which Hashem executed while Bnei Yisrael sat around the meat of the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 12:12).
  • Bnei Yisrael also recall, in the same verse, the “…bread we had eaten to our fill” in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). The last “bread” Bnei Yisrael had eaten in Egypt was the “unleavened bread,” i.e. the matzah that Hashem commanded them to eat along with the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 12:8). Yet while they may have eaten this bread “to [their] fill” on that night, it is ironic to note that the Torah actually refers to this sort of bread as bread of “affliction” [עני] (Deut. 16:3). This is especially interesting given that the Torah uses the same locution in connection with the mann: “Hashem afflicted you [ויענך]… and fed you the mann” (Deut. 8:3); “He fed you the mann, which your forefathers did not know, in order to afflict you [ענתך] and test you, to benefit you in the end” (ibid. 16).
  • Hashem responds to Bnei Yisrael’s protests by proclaiming that He will provide them with the following provisions: “In the afternoon [lit: “between the eves:” בין הערבים] you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be sated with bread” (Exod. 16:12). This strongly resembles the diet of Bnei Yisrael on the day they left Egypt: Bnei Yisrael had slaughtered the meat of the Passover sacrifice “in the afternoon [lit: “between the eves:” בין הערבים]” (Exod. 12:6), and ate unleavened bread the next morning (Exod. 12:39-41; see Num. 33:3 and Rashi on Deut. 16:1, v. mi-mitzrayim laylah”).
  • When Bnei Yisrael behold the mann for the first time, they do not recognize it, so they ask what it is, prompting Moshe to explain its significance: “When the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ because they did not know what it was, and Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat’” (Exod. 16:15). This is the exact sort of educational dialogue which the Passover sacrifice is intended to prompt: “And it will come to pass if your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and He saved our houses’” (Exod. 12:27).
  • Hashem instructs Bnei Yisrael to gather the mann by the household: “Gather of it each one according to his eating capacity, an omer for each person, according to the number of persons, each one for those in his tent you shall take” (Exod. 16:16). He had likewise instructed Bnei Yisrael to gather lambs for the Passover sacrifice by the household: “On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household” (Exod. 12:3).
  • Hashem ensures that no household receives more or less mann than it is capable of eating: “And the children of Israel did so: they gathered, both the one who gathered much and the one who gathered little [הממעיט]. And they measured it with an omer, and whoever gathered much did not have more, and whoever gathered little did not have less; each one according to his eating capacity, they gathered” (Exod. 16:17-18). He had likewise ensured that no household would receive more meat for the Passover sacrifice than it was capable of eating: “But if the household is too small [ימעט] for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is nearest to his house shall take [one] according to the number of people, each one according to one’s ability to eat, shall you be counted for the lamb” (Exod. 12:4).
  • None of the mann may be left over until morning (except for on the Sabbath): “And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave over of it until morning’” [אל יותר ממנו עד בקר] (Exod. 16:19). Likewise, no meat of the Passover sacrifice was to be left over until morning: “And you shall not leave over any of it until morning” [לא תותירו ממנו עד בקר] (Exod. 12:10).
  • Any mann left uneaten would melt in the heat: “when the sun grew hot, it melted” (Exod. 16:21). Likewise, any meat of the Passover sacrifice left uneaten was to be “burned in a fire” (Exod. 16:10).
  • Hashem shows particular interest in the way the mann is prepared for consumption, specifically forbidding Bnei Yisrael from “baking” or “cooking” it on one day per week: “Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake [today] whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest shall be a preservation for you until morning [i.e. because it may not be baked or cooked on the Sabbath day]” (Exod. 16:23). Hashem had been equally particular about the way the Passover sacrifice was to be prepared, explicitly prohibiting Bnei Yisrael from “cooking” it, and implicitly prohibiting them from “baking” it, either: “You shall not eat it rare or cooked in water—only roasted over the fire” (Exod. 12:9).
  • Hashem requires Bnei Yisrael to take a “Sabbath from bread” on the seventh day: “See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath. Therefore, on the sixth day, He gives you bread for two days. Let each man remain in his place; let no man leave his place on the seventh day. So the people made a Sabbath [וישבתו] on the seventh day” (Exod. 16:29-30). The Passover sacrifice, eaten on the first of the seven-day Passover festival, likewise heralds a “Sabbath from bread:” “For seven days you shall eat unleavened cakes, but on the preceding day you shall clear away (lit. “make a Sabbath of:” [תשביתו]) all leaven from your houses” (Exod. 12:15).
  • On days when the mann does not fall, Bnei Yisrael are forbidden from leaving their quarters: “Let each man remain in his place; let no man leave [אל יצא איש] from his place on the seventh day” (Exod. 16:29). On the night that the Passover sacrifice was consumed, Bnei Yisrael were likewise forbidden from leaving their quarters: “No mall shall leave [לא תצאו איש] from the entrance of his house” (Exod. 12:22).
  • The mann is frequently described as a “משמרת,” i.e. something to be “safeguarded” or “preserved:” “Bake whatever you wish to bake, and cook whatever you wish to cook, and all the rest shall be preserved [למשמרת] until morning” (Exod. 16:23); “Moses said, ‘This is the thing that the Lord commanded: Let one omer-full of it be preserved [למשמרת] for your generations, in order that they see the bread that I fed you in the desert when I took you out of the land of Egypt.’ And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take one jug and put there an omer-full of manna, and deposit it before the Lord to be preserved [למשמרת] for your generations.’ As the Lord had commanded Moses, Aaron deposited it before the testimony to be preserved [למשמרת]” (Exod. 16:32-34). The Passover sacrifice is also described as a “משמרת:” “And you shall keep it preserved [למשמרת] until the fourteenth day of this month, and the entire congregation of the community of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon” (Exod. 12:6).The concept of “preserving” or “safeguarding” the institutions of the Passover sacrifice for future generations appears in several other contexts as well: “And you shall safeguard [ושמרתם] the unleavened cakes” (Exod. 12:17); “And you shall preserve [ושמרתם] this day throughout your generations, as an everlasting statute” (ibid.); “And you shall preserve [ושמרתם] this matter as a statute for you and for your children forever. And it shall come to pass when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He spoke, that you shall preserve [ושמרתם] this sacrifice” (Exod. 12:24-5); “It is a night of safeguarding [שימורים] for the Lord, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is the Lord’s, safeguarding [שימורים] all the children of Israel throughout their generations” (Exod. 12:42).
  • Hashem commands Aharon to preserve precisely one “omer” of mann (Exod. 16:33), because each member of Bnei Yisrael received one “omer” of mann each day (ibid. 18). Though the Torah consistently uses the “omer” as its unit of choice throughout our episode, it adds—in an editorial afterthought at the very end of our story which reads like a non-sequitur—that “the omer is a tenth of an ephah” (ibid. 36). It is hard to appreciate what relevance this incidental information might hold in the context of our story. However, the “tenth of an ephah” appears in one other context in the Torah: it is the unit used to measure the meal-offerings of flour that are offered as ritual sacrifices, or that accompany such sacrifices (see, for example, Num. 28:1-29:39). It is instructive to note, in this respect, the phonetic connection between the Hebrew word for “manna”—mann, מן, i.e. מנ—and the Hebrew word for “meal-offering”—mincha, מנחה. Meanwhile: No formal meal-offering accompanied the Passover sacrifice in Egypt. However: (a) it was accompanied by a flour-product analogous to the typical meal-offering: matzah (Exod. 12:8); (b) more broadly, the entire sacrifice was offered in the context of a meal! Thus, while neither the mann nor the Passover sacrifice are explicitly associated with the “meal-offering,” the details of both strongly evoke that institution. This constitutes yet another connection between the mann and the Passover sacrifice.

Taken together, the series of pervasive parallels which point from the laws of the mann to the laws of the Passover sacrifice suggest that the former may very well have been modeled upon the latter. Bnei Yisrael offer the Passover sacrifice in Egypt on the night before Hashem frees them from centuries of slavery, and the matzah baked that night sustains them for the first month of their journey in the desert. But then, that matzah runs out—and with it, apparently, goes the nation’s historical consciousness as well. In a moment of great confusion, the people suddenly find themselves longing for the fate of their tormentors, whose lives Hashem had taken on their last night in Egypt. Bnei Yisrael appear to have lost all memory of that night. The meaning of the Passover sacrifice, intended to bolster their faith in Hashem for years to come, has been forgotten in but a few short weeks. So Hashem introduces the mann: the miraculous “bread of memory,” which shall be remembered for generations hence, but which, in this generation, shall itself offer the people a constant reminder of their not-too-distant-past.

This literary insight bears significant legal implications. Jewish jurists traditionally assume that (with one exception) Bnei Yisrael did not offer the Passover sacrifice during the forty years they wandered in the desert (see Rashi Num. 9:1, s.v. “ba-hodesh ha-rishon”). But they struggle to justify why the nation did not do so. Bartenura (ad. loc.) posits that they did not do so because they could not circumcise themselves while in the desert (Yevamot 71b-72a), and no uncircumcised male may eat of the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 12:48; see Josh. 5:2-10). Tosfot (Kiddushin 73b, s.v. “v’hoil”) suggests that they did not do so because the obligation to perform the Passover sacrifice applies only in the land of Israel (see Exod. 12:25 and Rashi ad. loc.) Yet alongside these fairly technical, halakhic (“legalistic”) explanations, our analysis allows us to add a hashkafic (“philosophical/theological”) one as well: Bnei Yisrael did not offer the Passover sacrifice while in the desert because the consumption of the mann served as its substitute!

This, to be sure, was not an immediate switch; Bnei Yisrael did, after all, offer the Passover sacrifice during their second year in the desert (Num. 9:1-3), which may imply that the mann was initially intended merely to complement that sacrifice, rather than to replace it entirely. It was also in that second year that pesach Sheni, i.e. “the second Passover,” or “substitute Passover,” was established (Num. 9:1-14). That this “second Passover” was to be observed on the fifteenth day of the second month—the very same day associated with the first fall of the mann—can, of course, be no mere coincidence. If indeed the mann’s arrival was prompted by a lack of respect for the Passover sacrifice (and for everything that this sacrifice represents), what better day to grant all those who had failed to offer the Passover sacrifice in optimal fashion a “second chance” to do so than on the anniversary of the mann’s first falling?

And yet, upon teaching Bnei Yisrael the laws of this “second Passover,” Moshe—in a tragic twist of irony—is confronted almost immediately by national calls to… dispense with the mann (Num. 11:1-6)! That these calls are accompanied by complaints that life for Bnei Yisrael had, after all, been better in Egypt, suggest that the nation never truly internalized the message of the Passover sacrifice—even after being afforded a second chance to do so. That they never again offered that sacrifice during their sojourns in the desert, meanwhile, may indicate that it was on account of these latter complaints that its observance was discontinued. Henceforth, the mann alone would evoke the “night of safeguarding”—and not just once a year, as the Passover sacrifice was intended to do, but indeed, once each day, so that the significance of that night would never again escape Bnei Yisrael as it had a mere month after their departure from Egypt. One might almost think of the mann as the “training wheels” which, over the course of their forty years in the desert, helped prepare Bnei Yisrael for offering the Passover sacrifice once again.

This being the case, it comes, of course, as no surprise to us that the day on which the mann ceases to fall for good happens to be the very same day on which Bnei Yisrael resume the rite of… the Passover sacrifice:

And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they made the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho. And they ate of the grain of the land on the morrow of the Passover, unleavened cakes and parched grain on this very day. And the manna ceased on the morrow when they ate of the grain of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna anymore; and they ate of the produce of the land of Canaan that year (Josh. 5:10-12).

The connection is clear: Both narratively and normatively, the mann functions as a mnemonic for the Passover sacrifice. Like that sacrifice, it reminds us “that the Lord brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exod. 16:6); that Hashem continues to guide each generation according to its needs; and that “man does not live by bread alone, but rather by the word of the Lord” (c.f. Deut. 8:3).

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!! So many parallels, so little time! 🙂

    • Alex Maged says:

      Thank you!

      “So many parallels, so little time!” — Couldn’t have said it better. Planning Parts 2-4 for some point in the future (would have loved to post this week had there been more time) as a way to really drive home the thesis of “mann as mnemonic motif.” Here’s a quick teaser of Part 2: “The Manna and the Bricks:”

      The Manna and the Bricks:

      In Parshat Shemot, Moshe petitions Pharaoh for the first time to free Bnei Yisrael from slavery. This infuriates Pharaoh, who responds by increasing the workload of the Hebrew slaves: whereas the Egyptians had previously provided Bnei Yisrael with the straw required to make their daily quota of bricks, Pharaoh now decrees that Bnei Yisrael must procure straw themselves. The episode of the mann recalls the episode of the bricks through the following intertextual parallels:

      • Formal proclamation concerning provisions: Hashem declares formally his intent to provide mann for Bnei Yisrael: “I am hereby going to rain down for you bread from the sky” (Exod. 16:4). Pharaoh had similarly declared formally his intent to cease providing straw for Bnei Yisrael: “So said Pharaoh, ‘I am not giving you straw’” (Exod. 5:10). The Hebrew formulae introducing these proclamations evoke one another: הנני ממטיר לכם vs. אינני נתן לכם.
      • Daily quota: Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to collect the mann day-in and day-out: “‘The people shall go out and gather the requirement (lit: “matter”) of each day on its day [דבר יום ביומו]… and it shall be on the sixth day that when they prepare what they will bring, it will be double of what they gather day by day [יום יום]’” (Exod. 16:4-5). The Egyptians had commanded Bnei Yisrael to fulfill their daily quota of bricks by invoking the same idiosyncratic locution: “Finish your work, the requirement (lit: “matter”) of each day on its day [דבר יום ביומו], just as when there was straw” (Exod. 5:13); “‘Do not reduce [the number] of your bricks, the requirement (lit: “matter”) of each day on its day [דבר יום ביומו] (ibid. 19).
      • Spreading out to gather: Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to “go out” and “gather” the mann (Exod. 16:4), which recalls the way Pharaoh had required Bnei Yisrael to “spread out” and “collect” straw (Exod. 5:7).
      • Reprieve of the Sabbath: Hashem does not rain mann on the Sabbath, so the people “enjoyed a Sabbath [וישבתו] on the seventh day.” Pharaoh, by contrast, had balked at the notion of granting Bnei Yisrael such a reprieve: “‘Behold, the people of the land are already many—and you would grant them a Sabbath [והשבתם] from their labor?” (Exod. 5:5).
      • Abominable odor: When Bnei Yisrael disobey Hashem’s injunction by hoarding their leftover mann, the mann develops an “abominable odor [ויבאש]” (Exod. 16:20). Bnei Yisrael had used the same curious expression to describe their own status in Egypt following Moshe’s failed attempts to free them, and the increased workload which this produced: “And they said to [Moses and Aaron], “May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have given us an abominable odor [הבאשתם] in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us” (Exod. 5:21).
      To be continued… 🙂

  2. jo z says:

    Thank you Alex will hopefully read it over shabbos.

  3. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you so much for the excellent essay and superb connection. I really enjoyed it. Hope you and Blima are doing great!

  4. Paul Shaviv says:


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