Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Ekev 5767/ August 4, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Test of the Manna


Dr . Yair Barkai




One of the reasons for the manna in the wilderness, according to what is written in this week’s reading, was to test the people:  “Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships [the Hebrew uses two verbs: “to cause you hardship” and “to test you”], only to benefit you in the end” (Deut. 8:16).

Nahmanides, in his commentary on the binding of Isaac, said that tests are for the sake of the person being tested, not for the one giving the test.  Here, too, the test should be viewed as for the sake of the people, not for the Creator’s “greater knowledge.”

Were it not for the word anotkha, to cause hardship, on the basis of the exposition in Exodus (16:22-27) one could interpret the Israelites’ trial as being the very prohibition against gathering the manna on the Sabbath:  would they make do with gathering a double portion on Friday and not go out to gather manna on the Sabbath, or would they still attempt to gather it on the Sabbath?   For it is explicitly written:   “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion – that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not” (Ex. 16:4); likewise in this week’s reading:  “that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts:   whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2).

According to these passages, the test found expression in the degree of trust and faith in G-d and acceptance of His commandments, even before the theophany at Mount Sinai.   But now that the test is described as a hardship, (lema’an ‘anotekha), we may ask: what hardship was there in eating manna, the bread that was brought down from heaven and of which it was said:  “The house of Israel named it manna; it was like coriander seed, white and it tasted like wafers in honey” (Ex. 16:31)?  Likewise, we must ask whether there was any connection between the hardship and the test (le-nassotekha); was the hardship part of the test to which the Israelites were put, or was it another matter all to itself?

This question has several possible answers:

A.      In the verse cited at the beginning of this article, the manna is described as something “which your fathers had never known.”  Manna had not been known or recognized as a food, and this fact led to a natural fear of eating it.  Therefore one could say that this unpleasant apprehension was part of the hardship mentioned in the verse, and accordingly the test was whether they would accept the manna with faith, believing that the fact of its having been brought down to them from heaven was an expression of the Lord’s concern for the people’s needs.

B.       The verse concludes, “only to benefit you in the end.”  This expression is one of the fundamental components of Jewish faith; it teaches us that one’s assessment of the situation must be based on seeing the long term and not on data gleaned from a narrow view of the present.   Since human ability to assess the future is limited, it follows that adapting to situations of pressure is a sort of hardship, and the faith that “all that the All-Merciful one does is for the best” (Berakhot 60b) must serve as the point of departure for any examination of faith.

What both of these solutions have in common is lack of knowledge as the factor causing the hardship, which itself is a test of faith.

C.      The gemara (Yoma 74b) discusses the hardship involved in eating the manna:

Who fed you in the wilderness with manna … in order to test you by hardships – Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi disagreed, one of them saying:  A person who has bread in his basket is not like a person who does not have bread in his basket; while the other said:  One who sees and eats is not like one who does not see and eats.

One of the amoraim was of the opinion that the hardship lay in the fact that the manna was available only the same day it was gathered.  The Israelites could not save up any quantity of it and assure themselves food on coming days; rather, they had to eat the portion they gathered each day, hence they were like someone who “does not have bread in his basket,” who does not know where his next meal will come from. [1]

The other amora ascribed the trial to the taste of the manna.  Although it was said to taste like a “wafer in honey” and “it had all sorts of flavors in it, so that each one of the Israelites would taste in it whatever he wished” (Ex. Rabbah 25.3), nevertheless the fact that there was no connection between what they tasted and what they ate and its appearance, made it distasteful to them.

Thus, the test involved a particular hardship, according to each of these amoraim.

D.      We have mentioned two explanations of the test to which the Israelites were put in the wilderness:   one, testing their faith in the Lord, the other, testing their willingness to accept the responsibility of obeying His commandments.  However, as we mentioned, the test of the manna appears in this week’s reading a second time:  “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 than man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees” (Deut. 8:3).

Here a different reason is given for the test, as explained by Nahmanides:

Afterwards He fed you manna, so that you would know “that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”  Likewise, the passage, “who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known” (Deut.8:16)…  But regarding that which was written in the story of the manna (Ex. 16:4), “that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not,” answering their needs and providing them their wishes, [that was as if the Lord were saying] I shall see if they listen to Me when things are very good for them.

The additional explanation raised by Nahmanides has to do with the fear that, when all goes well for them, in times of plenty, their faith in the Lord providing their needs would weaken, as it is written:  “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked – you grew fat and gross and coarse – he forsook the G-d who made him and spurned the Rock of his support” (Deut. 32:15).

E.       Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elucidates the verse, taking the same line of thought, but in a slightly different manner:

Bread (Heb. lehem) is sustenance for which human beings must struggle (Heb. nilham) against nature and in competition with other creatures.  Bread is a product of nature and the human intellect that rules the world.   So we find that bread represents human intelligence ruling over nature and acting in society with other factors, and thus human beings create the means for their subsistence.   Now it might occur to us that the creative power of human beings is the only necessary condition for our earthly existence, thus we might forget the Lord’s hand, which is the cause of human sustenance and even though every slice of bread that sustains us attests to the Lord’s providence and His full and outstretched hand … Concern for bread can become a pursuit of money that knows no end, and once again our minds will no longer be free to ponder any matter of purely spiritual or moral significance… The survival of human beings is not dependant solely on the work of nature and of the person who is represented by “bread,” rather, every command of the Lord has the capacity for giving life to the human soul, and also the bread that a person produces by artificial means is naught but a command of the Lord.

What these two commentaries (D, E) share in common is an educational explanation of the reason for the test – the people must prove that they have internalized the educational message of the test of the manna and that they put it into practice through the way they behave in the wilderness.

Indeed, the verses that follow attest to this direction of thought:  “Bear in mind that the Lord your G-d disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son” (Deut. 8:5).

Suffering hardship, which is a part of the test, is a stage in the protracted educational process that transforms the Israelites from slaves, accustomed to being subservient to flesh and blood and surrounded by idolatry, into a free people that accepts the responsibility of the commandments and allegiance to G-d in heaven.

Who Was Testing Whom?

Thus far we have dealt with the test that the Lord put to the people.  The manna, however, also served the people in testing G-d (Ex. 16:2-3):

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.   The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!  For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

The people were complaining and essentially testing the Lord, to see if He was capable of providing them sustenance in wilderness conditions.   As a response to this complaint, the Lord caused the manna to descend for the people.

This is also what follows from the verse in Psalms:   “they were seized with craving in the wilderness, and put G-d to the test in the wasteland.   He gave them what they asked for, then made them waste away” (Ps. 106:14-15).

This is formulated even more poignantly in the verse:   “To test G-d was in their mind when they demanded food for themselves.  They spoke against G-d, saying, ‘Can G-d spread a feast in the wilderness?’” (Ps. 78:18-19).

The people’s complaint did not stem from hunger, for they were not making do with a meager existence, as most people crossing a wilderness; rather they were demanding the utmost – “to spread a feast in the wilderness,” and thereby they were trying the Lord.   Just as the Lord was testing the people in order to educate them, so too the people were testing the Lord, to try out His ability to lead them in the wilderness through unnatural means.   They thereby showed themselves to be of little faith, as it says further on in the psalm:   “the Lord heard and He raged; fire broke out against Jacob, anger flared up at Israel, because they did no put their trust in G-d, did not rely on His deliverance” (Ps. 78:21-22).


The manna, mentioned twice in this week’s reading, aside from being one of the miracles that were done for the Israelites during their wandering in the wilderness, also served as a two-sided test, both on the part of the Lord, for the purpose of morally shaping the people who had exited from bondage to redemption, and on the part of the people, who were testing the powers of their G-d to perform miracles.

[1] In Yoma 76a, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says:  “Whoever had four or five sons would worry and say:   what if tomorrow it does not come down, and all of them should starve to death?  So, they all attuned their hearts to their Father in heaven.”