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07.08.2018 20:46    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  devarim reeh  

Manna and Tithes: Bread from Heaven vs. Bread from Earth

The manna that came down in the wilderness in response to the people's repeated complaints of increasing hunger is first mentioned in the book of Exodus:  "the whole Israelite community grumbled…'If only we had died by the hand of Lord in the land of Egypt…For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death'" (Ex. 16:2-3).

The Lord's response comes swiftly in the form of bread from heaven.  Indeed the Hebrew word man reflects the idea of bread from (=min) heaven, although further on Scriptures explains that it was called manna by the people because they asked, "'what is it (=man hu)'—for they did not know what it was" (Ex. 16:15).  There the Torah also tells us that the manna was a test to see "whether they will follow My instructions or not" (Ex. 16:4), although the nature of this test is unclear.

Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, maintains that the test was "whether they will keep the commandments associated with it, not to leave any of it over until morning and not to gather it on the Sabbath."  The Torah describes manna as tasting like "wafers in honey," and the midrash says it tasted to each person just as they wished it to taste:  "It had all sorts of flavors, the Israelites tasting in it each what they desired" (Exodus Rabbah, Be-Shalah, 25.3).  Thus it seems that manna was a superior food, suitable to every person's needs, and answered the unjustified complaints of the people.

However, in Moses’ final oration in this week’s reading, the story turns out to be different from what we had supposed:  "Remember the long way that the Lord your G-d has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships" (Deut. 8:2).  What were these hardships by which He tested the people?  "He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees" (Deut. 8:3).

In contrast to the picture portrayed in Exodus, and unlike what we may have thought based on the midrash, Moses says here that the manna was a trial and a hardship, leaving those who ate it feeling hungry, in order to teach the people that man does not live on bread alone.  Even in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan(1.4) it says:  "He [Balaam] said to him [Balak]:  this people that you hate hungers for food and thirsts for water, and they have nothing to eat or drink other than manna."

Thus we see that initially the manna was a test of faith in the ability of the Lord to produce food, since it came down daily and hording it from one day to the next was forbidden, as the midrash explains:  "Hence Rabbi Eleazar of Modi`in would say that whoever had food to eat one day and worried whether he would have food on the morrow showed lack of faith" (TanhumaBe-Shalah, 20).  Similarly, we find in the Zohar (Part II, 62a):


Rabbi Jose began:  You give it openhandedly (Ps. 145:16)…What is said just before this?  "The eyes of all look to You expectantly" (Ps. 145:15).  All people on earth look expectantly to the Holy One, blessed be He, hence all those who have faith must daily request their sustenance of the Holy One, blessed be He…but why?  "That I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not" (Ex. 16:4).  In this (eating) one can tell the persons of faith, for each and every day they follow the straight path of the Torah.  Rabbi Isaac said:  Hence, "The righteous man eats to his heart's content" (Prov. 13:25).


Thus manna expresses the degree of faith of those who eat it; hence in Hassidism it is called the "food of faith."  This is also hinted at by the people's initial reaction to it:  "They said, 'what is it (=man hu)'—for they did not know what it was."  The letters of man hu can be rearranged to obtain the Hebrew word emunah, faith.  This helps us understand Rabbi Akiva's remark in the gemara (Yoma 75b):


"Man did eat bread of the mighty" (Ps. 78:25), which Rabbi Akiva interpreted as meaning bread which ministering angels eat.  When these words were reported to Rabbi Ishmael, he said to them...Do the ministering angels indeed eat bread?...Rather, bread of the mighty (=abirim) is bread which is absorbed by the two hundred and forty-eight parts of the body (ebarim or organs and limbs).


As is the way with aggadic material, there is no contradiction here.  If the manna was absorbed by the parts of the body, it provided nutrition but did not have the unique qualities constituting food.  Rabbi Akiva explains that the feeling was like that experienced by angels, who do not in truth eat; similarly, it was as if the person was not really eating.  This is a difficult test indeed.  The psalm in fact says, "because they did not put their trust in G-d, did not rely on His deliverance" (78:22).

Manna was the answer to lack of faith, its objective being to teach us that "man does not live by bread alone."  For manna creates a condition of human passiveness; bread from heaven gives a physical sense of hunger even if it is nutritious and absorbed by the body, similar to ministering angels eating.  This reflects a high level of bonding with and dependence on the Lord, severing oneself from all the materialism of the world.

Regarding this Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai said, "Interpreting the Torah was given to none other than those who ate the manna" (TanhumaBe-Shalah, 20, according to the mekhilta variant).  In other words, he viewed the spiritual state of marking time in the wilderness, cut off from materialism, as a necessary precondition for receiving the Torah.  His approach in general argues that severance from materialism is necessary in order to attain understanding of Torah.

Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai also said:  "If a man ploughs in the ploughing season, and sows in the sowing season…what is to become of the Torah?  Rather, when Israel perform the will of the Almighty, their work is performed by others."  Whereas Rabbi Ishmael said that study of the Torah should be combined with a worldly occupation (Berakhot 35b).  The Sages maintained that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai's approach is suitable only to the specially gifted:  "Many have followed Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai…and it has not been successful" (ibid.).  It says of the manna, "I will rain down bread for you from the sky" (Ex. 16:4).  Generally rain comes down from the sky, then people plough and sow and make bread of the grain; but here everything comes from heaven, just like the rain itself.

The wilderness, as we have said, was the place for preparing for spiritual life, but the sojourn there was temporary, not the ultimate objective of the Torah.  The Torah commands us:  "Six days you shall labor and do all your work" (Ex. 20:9).  Specifically, we are to till the soil of the land of Israel and to bring the first of our grain yield to the Lord, as it says in this week's reading:  "You may not partake in your settlements of the tithes of your new grain or wine or oil, or of the firstlings of your herds and flocks" (Deut. 12:17).  This text mentions several symbolic foods associated also with the Temple, grain being associated with the showbread and meal offering, oil with the oil for the lampstand, wine with the wine used for libation, and the animals mentioned, in the sacrificial offerings—in other words, everyday eating has a particular status in the Temple.  Likewise the Sabbath table:  we light candles (oil) at the table, recite a blessing over the wine, and eat challah (grain) and meat dishes (animal sacrifices).  Thus, "This is the table that stands before the Lord" (Ezek. 41:22); the Sabbath table parallels worship in the Temple, and today, in the absence of sacrifices, "a person's table makes expiation for him" (Berakhot55a).  These three foods have further symbolism:  oil is a flammable substance, and its function both in the Temple and at the Sabbath table is to burn.  Fire is the way through which human beings change nature.  Likewise with wine and bread:  bread starts with grain, which is then ground into flour by man, kneaded into dough and baked to make bread.  Wine starts from grapes, to which man applies a series of actions until wine is achieved.  In other words, these foods symbolize the change that human beings bring about in the natural world:  instead of eating bread of the mighty that comes down from heaven in the form of manna, human beings must expend effort to produce their food and bring the work of their hands as a present to the Lord, a tithe indicating that we "ascribe might to G-d" (Ps. 68:35), because G-d is interested in human endeavor, which is the object of the Torah and its observance.

What is the nature of this endeavor?  We were given manna as bread from heaven, just as a child at the beginning of his life is fed by his parents in the hope that he will grow, develop and become independent and able to support himself; so, too, the Israelites when they came out of Egypt, a people at the beginning of its life, were supported by G-d, caring for all their needs—"The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years" (Deut. 8:4).  We were like a child at his mother's breast—"He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock" (Deut. 32:13).  Next comes the stage of the nation's adolescence:  "I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown" (Jer. 2:2); and finally, entering the land, symbolizing maturity, the stage at which a person is expected to be self-supporting.  Instead of the Lord giving us bread, we are supposed to give Him a gift.  However, the gift is not actually intended for G-d, for he has no need of gifts:  "Who asked that of you?" (Isa. 1:12).  G-d is interested in man following in His ways, and just as the Lord shows kindness, so humans are expected to give terumah and tithes to the priest and Levite:  "But do not neglect the Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have" (Deut. 14:27).  We are commanded to help out the Levite, who has no land, giving him of the bread that we obtained by the sweat of our brow.  The definition of a talmid hakham, a Torah scholar, is "one who is above suspicion regarding tithes," a person who does not hesitate to help those who are in need.  This is not an intellectual definition, rather a moral one (Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi, z"l).

The tithe presented in this week's reading is primarily ma`aser sheni, the "second tithe" (Deut. 14:23-26).  This tithe is different from the "first tithe" in that it is eaten by its owners in Jerusalem.  Through this tithe we also show kindness by converting it into money and helping support the shopkeepers in Jerusalem by spending it there.  This is the greatest praise of G-d—for a person to be able to eat the fruit of his labors and give thanks to the Holy One, blessed be He, who brought him to a state of independence and gave him the ability to bring blessing to others.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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