What the Heck Was Manna, Anyway? | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

What the Heck Was Manna, Anyway?

The unknown fifth question of the Passover seder

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Today at sundown is the beginning of Passover, when Jews celebrate their ancestors' freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt. The observance usually involves reading and eating in about equal measure.

A Haggadah book, courtesy Flickr user Haithaca

During my family's Passover seders, when the reading parts were being doled out, we all dreaded being assigned the "it would have been sufficient"s. That's the highly repetitive part (at least in the translation in the Maxwell House Haggadah we used) where a litany is recited of all the ways God provided for the Israelites after liberating them from the Pharaoh's rule: If he had supplied us with the necessaries in the wilderness forty years, and had not fed us with manna, it would have been sufficient. If he had fed us with manna, and not given us the Sabbath, it would have been sufficient. And so on.

Among all the other strange language used in the Haggadah, it never occurred to me to wonder back then, what the heck was manna, anyway? Was this food that sustained the Israelites in the desert for four decades some kind of miracle substance that rained down like—oh yeah, like manna from Heaven. Obviously, that is the literal explanation from the Bible, but scientists have other theories.

One, put forth nearly a century ago, was that the stuff that miraculously appeared each morning for the Israelites to harvest was actually the sweet-tasting secretion of a kind of plant lice that infected certain shrubs in the Sinai Desert. Kind of ruins the appetite for matzo ball soup, eh?

According to a 1927 Time magazine article, Dr. Fritz Bodenheimer, of Hebrew University's Zionist Experimental Agricultural Station, and Oskar Theodor, of the university's microbiological institute, visited the Sinai Desert in summer and observed "the little pills forming as yellow, sulphur-like drops on the tamarisk twigs."

Bedouins on the Sinai peninsula continue to harvest and eat the manna, as described in the 1981 Torah: A Modern Commentary, published by the Union for Reform Judaism. The book explains, "In June the substance falls to ground in little drops and is gathered up before sunrise for afterward it liquifies again once the sun shines on it. The Arabs preserve the manna in leather gourds and thus save it, like honey, for the future." A chemical analysis of the excretions found they contained a mixture of three basic sugars with pectin.

Another theory, mentioned in the 2006 book Cooking with the Bible (which I'll discuss more in my next post), suggests that manna was a "dried form of algae or drought-desiccated and wind-dispersed lichen." The authors, Anthony F. Chiffolo and Rayner W. Hesse, Jr., also point out that, in the Book of Numbers chapter of the Old Testament, some of the Israelites complained to God about the monotony of eating manna day after day. "What they seemed to have wanted was variety, and they wanted it garnished with spices! Without the garnishes, they felt empty."

It wasn't the most exciting diet, in other words, but it was sufficient.

On a totally unrelated note, other than that it's about Passover, check out this funny Facebook parody, which includes wall-to-wall postings between Pharaoh and God.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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