Pondering the appropriate blessing before consuming biblical manna sounds like a strange intellectual pursuit. For one, blessings were instituted by the rabbis long after the Children of Israel wandered in the desert and ate manna. Indeed, very few scholars though that this was a worthwhile question. Prior to the advent of Hasidism, there were only two scholars who considered this question – one from Medieval Germany, another from early seventeenth-century Italy. Neither of these musings generated widespread discussion of the matter.
The earliest recorded conversation about the blessing over manna comes from the hasidic milieu. In 1850, a hasidic work entitled Benei Yisaskar [Children of Yissakhar] was first published. Part of the work had already appeared in 1846, but now the work in its entirely was printed. This volume was the flagship tome of Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841), and the author is often referred to by the title of the book.
According to R. Zvi Elimelekh’s descendants, the reference to the tribe Yissakhar was an acknowledgement of the hasidic tradition that R. Zvi Elimelekh’s soul root came from that tribe. In the introduction to the work, R. Zvi Elimelekh linked the title to the biblical verse: “And of the children of Yissakhar, men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:33). Indeed, Benei Yisaskhar follows the Jewish calendar and as such offers an “understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.”
In Benei Yisaskhar, R. Zvi Elimelekh recounted how during his youth, he spent time with the hasidic master Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Eichenstein of Żydaczów (1763-1831). R. Zvi Hirsh was R. Zvi Elimelekh’s older contemporary, and in addition to being related by marriage, the rabbi of Dynow went on to write a commentary on one of R. Zvi Hirsh’s works of hasidic mysticism.
R. Zvi Elimelekh recorded how one day R. Zvi Hirsh raised the issue of the appropriate blessing before consuming manna. At the time, R. Zvi Elimelekh cited the little-known opinion of Rabbi Menahem ‘Azarya da Fano (“Rema Mifano”; 1548-1620), a prolific Italian writer and a patron of learning. Rema Mifano made notable literary contributions in the fields of Kabbalah, theology, liturgy, and law. One of Rema Mifano’s writings included a vivid description of the celebratory meal at the End of Days. This passage would only be published in 1849, so R. Zvi Elimelekh must have been citing from a manuscript.
According to Rema Mifano, a jar of desert manna had been preserved specifically for this festive meal. But which blessing would be recited over that manna? Rema Mifano opined: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the heavens.” A mimic of the standard bread blessing, but instead of giving thanks for bread from the earth, thanks would be given for sustenance from the heavens.
R. Zvi Elimelekh continued with his account of the conversation: One esteemed figure who was present suggested that no blessing was recited on manna! R. Zvi Elimelekh referred to this character with respectful language: “the teacher, the mystic, our master, Rabbi Yisrael Dov, may his memory be for life in the world to come.” In all likelihood this was Rabbi Yisrael Dov Gottesman of Drohobycz, a revered student of R. Zvi Hirsh who passed away at a young age.
R. Yisrael Dov’s opinion was counterintuitive: there is no precedent of something edible that does not require a blessing. To be sure, there is a case when food is eaten without a blessing: An onen – that is, an immediate relative of the deceased until the end of the burial – may eat but does not say blessings. In the case of an onen no blessing is recited because of the status of the eater, not because of the food. Other people eating that same food would recite a blessing. According to R. Yisrael Dov, no blessing was recited on manna, regardless who ingested this miraculous food.
R. Yisrael Dov’s pointed to the biblical verse that described manna as food of mighty heroes, meaning angel food (see Psalms. 78:25). Playing on the Hebrew word for heroes, abirim, one opinion in the Talmud suggested that the manna was totally absorbed in the limbs, that is eivarim. The opinion in the Talmud suggests that because of its divine composition, manna did not produce human waste; it left nothing to excrete for it was entirely absorbed by the body. Following Jewish mystical tradition, R. Yisrael Dov translated this comment about digestion into a statement about spiritual valence.
According to Jewish mystical tradition, every physical item encapsulates an element of the Divine. Without this divine component, the item could not exist for there can be no existence outside God. Alas, the divinity in physical objects is encased in shells and mixed with dross. When it comes to food, the recital of a benediction mystically extracts the divine essence from the physical item, separating it from the chaff. Manna, however, contained no spiritual dross; it was entirely divine. Consequently, manna needed no blessing!
R. Zvi Elimelekh added a postscript, describing his reaction to his colleague’s suggestion: “And I was overjoyed, for in my opinion, the words are close to the truth. Accordingly, I was surprised at the holy m[aster] Rema [Mifano] who wrote that in the future we will have to recite a benediction over [manna].”
Continuing his musing, R. Zvi Elimelekh considered a different angle: Indeed, during the weekdays no blessing would be recited for the aforementioned reason, but manna eaten on Sabbath would be preceded by a blessing. This blessing, however, would be of another category – not a blessing recited before experiencing enjoyment, but a blessing recited before performing a commandment: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to eat the Sabbath meal ”
This is a strange suggestion because if R. Zvi Elimelekh is correct, then the blessing over the Sabbath meal should be recited every week… even nowadays!
The Maggid of Melbourne is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassa. He is a teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. His column appears in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.