Monday, January 21, 2013

TorahBytes: What Is It? (Be-Shallah)

When the dew had evaporated, there on the surface of the desert was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they asked each other, "Man hu? [What is it?]" because they didn’t know what it was. Moshe answered them, "It is the bread which Adonai has given you to eat." (Shemot / Exodus 16:14-15; CJB)

Photo by Aviv Hod (Own work)
[CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It is not unusual for us to have guests to our Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve, being Friday evening) dinner table. Many who join us are believers in the Messiah, but from non-Jewish backgrounds. I would say for most this would be their first taste (no pun intended) of Jewish culture. Before the blessings we explain what's what, but there is one interesting element of dinner of which I usually ask people to guess what it is. On the table every week we have two loaves of challah. Challah is an egg bread that is specially braided for Shabbat and festivals. But why two?

Many of the people to whom I ask this question are well-versed in the Bible. But to my recollection I don't remember anyone guessing without a really clear hint. For those hearing or reading this who don't know, I won't keep you waiting any longer. The double portion of challah is to remind us of the double portion of manna that was provided to the people of Israel on the sixth day of each week during their forty years of wilderness wanderings.

Every day of the week during that time the people of Israel would wake up to discover a flaky substance covering the ground. The first time they encountered it they said "man hu", or in English, "what is it?" Thus they nicknamed it "man" (the "a" is pronounced more like the "a" in "dawn" than the "a" in "fan") usually pronounced "manna" in English. When God instructed the people concerning the gathering of manna, they were only to take as much as they needed, any extra would go bad. But on the sixth day, in preparation for Shabbat, the day of rest when no manna would be provided, they were to gather twice as much. The extra amount would not go bad the next day. So we have two loves of challah on our Erev Shabbat table.

I don't blame anyone for not guessing. Once you know, then the connection is obvious. But until then, the only clue is that it's a double portion of bread. But unless one has manna on their mind, the association is not easily made.

God wanted the Jewish people to have manna on their minds, however. This miracle bread from heaven was geared to teach us a lesson about God's provision even after the days of manna were over. The lesson was made the most dramatic, not on the morning on which it appeared, but on the first Shabbat following its initial days. We read that contrary to God's instruction, some of the people went out to gather and found none. One might think that's no big deal. After all there was no manna to gather, but that's not the way God saw it:

Adonai said to Moshe, "How long will you refuse to observe my mitzvot and teachings? Look, Adonai has given you the Shabbat. This is why he is providing bread for two days on the sixth day. Each of you, stay where you are; no one is to leave his place on the seventh day" (Shemot / Exodus 16:28-29; CJB)

The provision of manna was intentionally designed by God to not only teach us that God provides but that he provides according to his instructions. It is more important to learn to obey God than to expect his provision. I am not saying that God's generosity in providing for our needs should be thought of lightly. It's more that because God provides, we should all the more make sure to pay careful attention to his instructions.

This is what Moses taught near the end of his life as he reflected upon the manna when he said,

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

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