A short reference in a popular book can trigger a surprising reaction. This is what happened when Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynów (1783-1841) briefly recounted a discussion about a seemingly insignificant topic. The discussion centered around the appropriate blessing over biblical manna.
Two possibilities were considered: First, R. Zvi Elimelekh cited an earlier opinion that the blessing should be: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the heavens.” An alternative suggestion put forward by one of R. Zvi Elimelekh’s colleagues argued that since manna was divine food it required no blessing at all! R. Zvi Elimelekh favoured this second approach.
The exchange appeared in R. Zvi Elimelekh’s posthumously published magnum opus: Benei Yisaskhar. Considering the fact that there was no practical implication to this question, it could well have remained a mere curious digression, relegated to oblivion. Yet Benei Yisaskhar became a hasidic classic, and this passage caught the attention of many scholars in the hasidic sphere of influence.
First, the notion that no blessing needed to be recited over manna gained currency in nineteenth-century Galicia. Rabbi Meir Horowitz (1819-1877) – hasidic master and community rabbi in Dzików – referred to the exchange in Benei Yisaskhkar, and offered further proof that no blessing was required for manna.
The opinion was repeated in an 1878 responsum penned by Rabbi Yitzhak Yehudah Schmelkes (1828-1905) to his son-in-law. R. Schmelkes wrote the letter while serving as the rabbi of Przemyśl. He would go on to serve in the prestigious Lemberg rabbinate and become a renowned jurist. Years later this position was defended with further proofs by R. Schmelkes’ grandson, Rabbi Aron Lewin (1879-1941) – in his commentary to the first tractate of Talmud. R. Lewin served as rabbi of Sambor and then of Rzeszów, and was an elected representative to the interwar Polish Sejm.
Interwar Poland also saw interest in the question amongst scholars linked to Hasidism centred in Ger (Góra Kalwaria). Yosef Pacanowski (1875-1942), was a wood merchant who lived in Pabianice and dedicated much time to Torah study. In the second volume of his acclaimed compendium of biblical commentary, Pardes Yosef, Pacanowski cited R. Zvi Elimelekh’s account and supported the notion that no blessing was needed.
Pacanowski was a disciple of the hasidic master Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (“Imrei Emet”; 1865-1948). Pacanowski sent drafts of Pardes Yosef to the Imrei Emet for his approval, and the hasidic master responded with comments. The Imrei Emet’s letter was printed as the first in a parade of twenty-one approbations included in the 1937 volume. The Imrei Emet’s letter opened with a comment on Pacanowski’s manna discussion, and Pacanowski responded to the Imrei Emet in a lengthy footnote. The Imrei Emet’s younger brother, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Alter of Pabianice (1877 – Treblinka, 1942), also provided an approbation for Pardes Yosef, as well as a comment on the blessing over manna.
In the same year that Pacanowski published the second volume of his compendium, Rabbi Avraham Piotrkowski published the third booklet of his collated remarks and miscellany. R. Piotrkowski served in the Łódź rabbinate and was also affiliated with Ger Hasidism. He did not add anything significant to the discussion: he copied an excerpt from Benei Yisaskhkar, copied a passage from the Imrei Emet’s Pardes Yosef annotation, and added a footnote.
The discourse did not stop with the Destruction of European Jewry, and the transplanting of the centre of Gerrer Hasidism to Israel. Yosef Pacanowski never completed his Pardes Yosef compendium; he managed to publish three volumes on Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. In the 1990s, Rabbi David Avraham Mandelboim (b. 1956) – also affiliated with Ger – took up the task of completing Pardes Yosef. Continuing the trend, R. Mandelboim brought a further proof to support the notion that no blessing was recited on manna.
Looking at the sweep of hasidic discussions it is clear there was an animated consideration of the blessing over manna. In the Gerrer hasidic milieu, this discussion was largely in one direction: conscripting proofs and structuring arguments to buttress the position that no blessing was needed over manna.
How should we understand this apparent obsession with a matter of questionable import? How should we perceive the preponderance of interest in declaring that manna required no blessing?
Perhaps these scholars were merely falling in line with the earliest hasidic position? Or perhaps these Hasidism were attracted by the antinomian streak in the thought that there might be a foodstuff that could – in theory – be eaten without a blessing?
This may be going too far, because two other Ger-affiliated rabbis offered staid approaches. Rabbi Meir Don Plotzki (1867-1928) was a successful rabbi, author, teacher, and political activist; his fame spread over Poland in 1903 when he published the first part of his Hemdat Yisra’el. In the second volume of Hemdat Yisra’el published in 1924, R. Plotzki stated that the blessing over manna should be the same blessing that is recited over vegetables. R. Plotzki noted that the Bible describes the Israelites as going out to gather manna; indeed, verb forms from the Hebrew root l.k.t. [gather] appear nine times in the biblical account.
Citing earlier sources, R. Plotzki explained that this verb is used when there is a link to the soil: the manna must have been nourished from the ground in some way. Hence the proper manna benediction, should be the standard vegetable blessing: “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the soil.”
Another version of this less adventurous route appeared in the writings of Rabbi Pinhas Menahem Elazar Justman (1849-1920), a scion of the Ger hasidic dynasty who served as rabbi and hasidic master in Pilica. In the second volume of his work, published posthumously in 1929, R. Justman admitted to thinking that the blessing over manna might be “who brings forth bread from heavens.” Yet he considered changing his mind when a close reading of the biblical text and commentators suggested that the heavenly manna was ready for eating only once it had been nourished by the earth. This connection to the soil raised the possibility that the blessing was the standard bread blessing: “who brings forth bread from the earth.”
While the reason for the obsession is open to conjecture, it is apparent that a brief exchange at a gathering of hasidim generated much interest. It would seem that the trigger for the widespread discussion was the publication of R. Zvi Elimelekh’s Benei Yisaskhar.
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 email@example.com.