Manna in the hassidic beit midrash

According to Jewish mystical tradition, every physical item encapsulates an element of the divine.

‘MAN’S ROLE is to collect sparks of truth and connect them, until the entire truth arises from the earth.’  (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
‘MAN’S ROLE is to collect sparks of truth and connect them, until the entire truth arises from the earth.’
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 thought that this was a worthwhile question. Prior to the advent of hassidism, there were only two scholars who considered this question – one from medieval Germany, another from early 17th century Italy. Neither of these musings generated widespread discussion of the matter.
The earliest recorded conversation about the blessing over manna comes from the hassidic milieu. In 1850, a hassidic work entitled Bnei Yissaschar (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 Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dynow (1783-1841), and the author is often referred to by the title of the book.
According to R. Tzvi Elimelech’s descendants, the reference to the tribe Yissachar was an acknowledgment of the hassidic tradition that R. Tzvi Elimelech’s soul root came from that tribe. In the introduction to the work, R. Tzvi Elimelech linked the title to the biblical verse: “And of the children of Yissachar, men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (I Chronicles 12:33). Indeed, Bnei Yissaschar follows the Jewish calendar and as such offers an “understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.”
In Bnei Yissaschar, R. Tzvi Elimelech recounted how during his youth, he spent time with the hassidic master Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Eichenstein of Zydaczow (1763-1831). R. Tzvi Hirsh was R. Tzvi Elimelech’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. Tzvi Hirsh’s works of hassidic mysticism.
R. Tzvi Elimelech recorded how one day R. Tzvi Hirsh raised the issue of the appropriate blessing before consuming manna. At the time, R. Tzvi Elimelech cited the little-known opinion of Rabbi Menahem Azariah 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 be published only in 1849, so R. Tzvi Elimelech 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. Tzvi Elimelech continued with his account of the conversation: One esteemed figure who was present suggested that no blessing was recited on manna! R. Tzvi Elimelech referred to this character with respectful language as “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. Tzvi 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. Tzvi Elimelech 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. Tzvi Elimelech 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. Tzvi Elimelech is correct, then the blessing over the Sabbath meal should be recited every week... even nowadays!
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.