On the 15th of Iyar in the year 2448, just three weeks before receiving the Torah on Har Sinai, Hashem rained down a miraculous food to sustain us in the midbar – the mann.
In order to fully understand what mann was, we have to retrace our steps to 2448 years earlier. Before Adam HaRishon sinned, he enjoyed Heavenly food in Gan Eden. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59b) says that the angels would prepare food for Adam – barbecue meat and decanter wine – while Adam did not lift a finger. Adam simply leaned back and enjoyed the feast. The Gemara there asks “Surely Adam was a vegetarian and forbidden to eat meat?” The answer given is that there is a difference between meat from Heaven and meat from animals here on earth. The former was permissible for Adam to eat, while the latter not. The Eitz Yosef on this Gemara says that in addition to Heavenly meat, Adam was also served delicious pastries – wafers dipped in honey (tzapichit bidvash).
Obviously, the food in Gan Eden was not the physical food we eat here in this world but elevated, spiritual sustenance. The descriptions in the Gemara above are purely metaphorical. Sustenance in Gan Eden was designed to be effortless – with zero human involvement (other than enjoying it). Sefer Meir Panim describes the essence of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge – Chava baking a chametz bread, which the serpent duped her into preparing with her own hands. Chava’s part in the sin was more complex than that of Adam, which was simply ingratitude. Instead of being content with the Heavenly food made by Hashem and served to him by angels, Adam felt it necessary to “experiment” with man-made food prepared by Chava, and he was punished appropriately.
As a result of this sin, Adam altered Plan A, the intended course of history, and Hashem – at the “last minute” as it were, in the twilight hours after the sin and before Shabbat came in – had to create Plan B, a series of elements to rectify this sin. These elements are listed in the Gemara (Avot 4:6), and one of them is the mann.
The Gemara (Chagiga 12b) lists the seven levels that comprise “Heaven.” They are (from highest to lowest) Aravot, Machon, Ma’on, Zevul, Shechakim, Rakia and Vilon. What interests us for the purpose of this article is the level called Shechakim. According to our Sages, this level contains a “mann mill” that “grinds” mann for the feast of the tzadikim in Gan Eden as well as for tzadikim alive here on earth.
In other words, mann was not a spontaneous response to Bnei Yisrael complaining in the desert that they had run out of matzos. When they left Egypt and reached Sukkot, they baked the dough that they had strapped to their belts. (According to the second opinion in Pesachim 37a, the dough was baked by the sun.) This matzah lasted for 30 days, and when they reached a placed called Alush (just before Refidim), suddenly Bnei Yisrael had no food. We see from above that the mann was planned from Creation for this very juncture.
In fact, the mann was the closest thing to the food that Adam HaRishon “ate” in Gan Eden before the sin. The Midrashim describe the mann as having any flavor that the person eating it imagined. This correlates with the Gemara’s description above of the food that Adam “ate,” that it resembled a wide variety of delectable foods – prime rib steak, scrumptious pastries and the choicest wines, amongst other things.
The Torah and Sages in the Midrashim go into great detail about the mann. It cured all Bnei Yisrael’s ailments and handicaps that they suffered in Egypt. It raised them to the level of angels so that they could directly witness Hashem’s presence on Har Sinai. It was “delivered” according to the individual’s level of piety – to tzadikim at their doorstep while the less pious had to gather it outside the camp. It was totally digested with no waste. It looked like a white coriander seed and tasted like honey wafers. It had a 24-hour shelf life (except on Friday for Shabbat, when it lasted 48 hours).
While the mann was an enormous chesed that Hashem did for Bnei Yisrael in the midbar, its main purpose was to be a lesson in faith. The Torah, when describing the mann (Devarim 8:3), says that Hashem “tormented” and “starved” us with the mann. From the miraculous praises above, torment and starvation do not seem apt terms to describe the mann. The Rosh and Da’at Zekeinim explain that Bnei Yisrael had to live day to day, with nothing in reserve in the “pantry.” Also, despite its miraculous variety of flavors, the mann always looked the same. This was to teach Bnei Yisrael to recognize their true source of sustenance, Hashem, and to look beyond the exterior layer for the inner essence. When they entered Eretz Yisrael they would need to apply these lessons when they became responsible for their own food production.
These same lessons are applicable today regarding our livelihood (parnasa).
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: What bracha did Bnei Yisrael make on the mann?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: How do we know the matzos Am Yisrael baked after leaving Egypt were round in shape? Our Sages learn this from a gezeira shava (juxtaposition) between Avraham telling Sarah to prepare uggot (which Rashi explains is derived from the word “round,” as in Choni Ham’agel) and the word used to describe matzos for Pesach, uggot (Shemot 12:39). In reality, Pesach matzos were always round until the beginning of the last century, when the first square factory matzos were produced. It took a lot of halachic deliberation to enable the changing of a centuries-old tradition.