Most of us know that manna is the special food which God sent to the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert (Ex 16). Some of us may have thought about manna during last Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah: “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (25:6).
Actually that wording probably doesn’t sound a lot like manna to most of us. After all, Exodus described manna as small flakes that covered the ground like frost and were gathered up to grind into flour to make into bread. The taste was described as like flour with honey, or bread with oil with a taste resembling the spice we know as coriander.
Manna sustained people well, but spoiled easily. (It only lasted a day, except on the Sabbath, when it lasted for two days.)
How does that sound anything like “juicy, rich food” or “choice wines”?
Manna is often used to prefigure the Eucharist, the bread from heaven (his own body) that Jesus gave us at the Last Supper. As “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, “Christ uses the manna as the type and symbol of the eucharistic food, which is true ‘bread from heaven” and “bread of life,” i.e., life-giving bread …’ The Book of Revelations speaks of “a hidden manna” given by Jesus (2:17). And the church has long referred to the eucharistic meal itself as “the bread of angels” (panis angelicus). This phrase comes from Ps 78: 23-25, where we are told that, when God gave the manna in the desert, it was “the bread of angels.”
Another place in the Old Testament which describes manna is the Book of Wisdom, which also uses the term “food of angels.” The book says manna contained “every delight, to satisfy every taste. … conforming to the taste of whoever ate it, it transformed itself into what each eater wished” (16:20-23).
Scripture scholar Fr. John Rybolt, commenting on the Book of Wisdom, notes that, for Israel, manna was “a food that came down from the heavens, pleasing everyone, even those with differing taste.” He added that, “Manna had a moral meaning also, as a symbol of divine sweetness.”
That sounds like something a bit more substantial than bread tasting like honey, oil or even coriander. Imagine it: Whatever taste you wanted, manna could give. The Talmud is said to refer to manna as having many tastes and comparing it to the variety of tastes found in a mother’s milk, which takes on the flavor of whatever meal she recently ate. The phrase used is l’shad hashamen (Nm 11:8), which we usually translate as “having a rich, creamy taste.”
Describing manna — especially since no one has tasted it since the day of Moses, 3,300 years ago — is difficult. It may even have been difficult for the Israelites of Moses’ time, since the word “manna” comes from a Hebrew phrase “man-hu,” which means “what is it?” And the “Jewish Encyclopedia” notes that there was a similar Egyptian word of the time — menu — which meant “food.”
Biblical manna may not exist now, but there actually are substances called “manna” today, and they seem to bear at least some similarity to the biblical food.
For example, there is the “manna” that comes from only one part of Sicily. It is made from the sap of ash trees and used as a sweetener for medicine and in children’s laxatives. Like the manna of the Bible, it also needs to be processed quickly, or the syrup will spoil. This Sicilian manna is also the main ingredient in mannitol (manna sugar) used in many modern pharmaceuticals.
The sap of a tamarisk tree in Iraq offers another form of “manna.” There it is called mann al-sama (Arabic for “from the sky”). It is also harvested from trees and then slowly boiled with other added ingredients like rose water and egg whites to make it into a candy called gaz.
Still another modern sweet substance known as “manna,” comes from the camel-thorn bush in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. (In the U.S., camel-thorn is considered an invasive species.) This manna also comes from the sap — which used to be processed and extruded by insects, where it fell to the ground to be gathered. This Iranian manna resembles clumps of sand and tastes like molasses or brown sugar. It is becoming popular as a seasoning in U.S. coastal cities like New York and San Francisco.
Biblical manna does not exist today — except for the jar of manna that Aaron placed in the Ark of the Covenant, which was lost. However, we have another bread from heaven, which we can taste every day — including Sunday.
Perhaps a modern rabbi can give some insight into how to use our “bread from heaven.” Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills explains, “The manna that fell from heaven was both a kindness and a test for our ancestors. There was enough food, both delicious and boring. There was enough food, but we had to have enough faith not to take more than we needed. We had everything we needed, so we had the time to do something of meaning with our lives.”
Bread from heaven gives us a taste of heaven and food to do God’s work on earth.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Jewish Encyclopedia”; reformjudaism.org; biblestudytools.com; jewishanswers.org; The New York Times; botanical.com; “The Collegeville Biblical Commentary”; The Washington Post; and ABCnews.go.com.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press (2011). Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” is available through Our Sunday Visitor Press.