This article originally appeared in the July issue of Pagine Ebraiche, the main Italian Jewish paper, published by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. It is part of a longer article coming out in a book entitled Wizards vs. Muggles: Exploring Identity Through Harry Potter.
The biblical manna that the Israelites ate while wandering in the desert was just like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. When manna is first mentioned, its taste is described as “tsapihit in honey” (Exodus 16:31). Alas the word “tsapihit” appears once in the Bible and its meaning is a mystery. The Bible later describes manna, its appearance, and its preparation for consumption, but here too the description is hazy (Numbers 11:7).
The sages ascribed magical properties to this source of sustenance, suggesting that the manna could take on almost any taste. In the verses that immediately precede the description of manna, the Israelites complained:
If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to! (Numbers, 11:4-6).
The rabbis explained why these five vegetables were specifically mentioned. According to one opinion, manna could taste like any flavor except for these five items. According to another opinion, not only could the manna taste like any substance, but it also had the texture of the desired food; that is, except for the five listed items – their flavor could be tasted, but their texture could not be sensed (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 75a).
Thus Jewish tradition remembers the manna as having a spectrum of tastes; truly “every flavor,” including chocolate, peppermint, marmalade, spinach, liver, tripe, and presumably even earwax. While there may have been five items it could not replicate, manna had one clear advantage over Bertie Bott’s Beans: you could choose the taste. People who ate bogey-flavored or vomit-flavored manna only had themselves to blame!
The existence of every flavor manna raised a question: What is the appropriate benediction that should be recited over this magical food? Five possibilities have been suggested.
The first recorded opinion appears in an early fourteenth century German manuscript of Sefer Hasidim: “On manna they would pronounce the benediction ‘[Blessed are You, O Lord, king of the universe] who gives bread from the heaven’.” Benedictions before eating follow a standard formula. They open with the words: “Blessed are You, O Lord, king of the universe,” and continue with a reference to the type of food about to be ingested. The wording of the second phrase is generally borrowed from the Bible. Thus manna is referred to by its biblical moniker – “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4; Psalms 78:24; 105:40; Nehemiah 9:15).
The next scholar to address this question was the prolific Italian writer Rabbi Menahem Azarya da Fano (1548-1620). In a work published in 1863, Menahem Azarya described the celebratory meal at the End of Days, which will include a jar of desert manna especially preserved for this feast. Which benediction will be recited over the manna? Menahem Azarya opined: “Blessed are You, O Lord, king of the universe, who brings forth bread from the heaven.” Presumably, Menahem Azarya did not have access to Sefer Hasidim, thus his slightly different suggestion is an independent response.
The question arose again in Galicia as recounted by Rabbi Tsevi Elimelekh Shapira (1783-1841). Tsevi Elimelekh remembered that Rabbi Tsevi Hirsh Eichenstein of Żydaczów (1763-1831) asked about the blessing on manna. One student suggested that no blessing was recited! According to Jewish mystical tradition, every physical item has an element of Godliness without which the item could not exist. Reciting a blessing mystically extracts the Divine from the physical item. Manna contained no dross; it was entirely Divine. Consequently, manna needed no blessing!
The great Baghdadi scholar, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1834-1909), did not like this approach. Indeed, from a mystical vantage, manna may not require a benediction. Blessings, however, are also a form of thanks for abundant goodness bestowed by God. Surely we would thank the Almighty for manna! Yosef Hayim suggested a slightly different wording for the manna benediction: “Blessed are You, O Lord, king of the universe who rains down bread from the heaven.” Indeed, manna descended from the heaven, and in two biblical passages the verb for raining is used (Exodus 16:4; Psalms 78:24).
The blessing over manna was considered in Poland by Rabbi Meir Don Plotzki (1867-1928). Plotzki suggested that on manna we would recite the blessing that is recited over vegetables, since the Bible describes the Israelites as going out to gather manna (Exodus 16:4-5, 16-18, 21-22, 26-27). Plotzki explained that the verb “to gather” is used when there is a link to the soil: the manna must have been nourished from the ground in some way, hence the benediction: “Blessed are You, O Lord, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the soil.”
While we cannot definitively determine the blessing over magical manna, looking at the sweep of writings reminds us that Jewish tradition has room for creative thought and imaginative exploration of worlds like Harry Potter’s magical reality.
Special thanks to Rossella Tercatin for her coordination with Pagine Ebraiche in Italy.