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Manna (Hebrew: מָ‏ן) or Manna wa Salwa (Arabic, Persian, Urdu), sometimes or archaically spelled mana, is the name of a food which, according to the Bible, was eaten by the Israelites during their travels in the desert. It was said to be sweet to the taste.


Biblical description

Manna is described as being comparable to Hoarfrost in size. Hoarfrost on grass lawn.

According to the book of Exodus, manna is white, like Coriander seed.

In the description in the Book of Exodus, manna is described as being available six mornings a week, after the dew had evaporated.[1] It is described in the Book of Numbers as arriving with the dew during the night;[2] Exodus adds that manna was comparable to hoarfrost in size,[1] similarly had to be collected before it was melted by the heat of the sun,[3] and was white like coriander seed in color.[4] Numbers describes it as having the appearance of bdellium,[5] adding that the Israelites ground it up and pounded it into cakes, which were then baked, resulting in something that tasted like cakes baked with oil.[6] Exodus states that raw manna tasted like wafers that had been made with honey.[4] The Israelites were instructed to eat only the manna they had gathered for each day. Leftovers or manna stored up for the following day "bred worms and stank":[7] the exception being the day before Shabbat (Preparation Day), when twice the amount of manna was gathered, which did not spoil overnight.

Potential discrepancies

Some form critics posit conflicting descriptions of manna as derived from different lore, with the description in Numbers being from the Yahwist tradition, and the description in Exodus being from the later Priestly tradition.[8][9] The Babylonian Talmud states that the differences in description were due to the taste varying depending on who ate it, with it tasting like honey for small children, like bread for youths, and like oil for the elderly.[10] Similarly, classical rabbinical literature rectifies the question of whether manna came before or after dew, by holding that the manna was sandwiched between two layers of dew, one falling before the manna, and the other after.[11]

Quranic description

Manna is also briefly mentioned in the Qur'an, with the Al-Baqara, Al-A'raf, and Ta-Ha mentioning the divine supply of manna as one of the miracles with which the Israelites were favored; these passages only describe manna as being "good things" which have been "provided ... as sustenance."[12]

Identifying manna

A tamarisk tree in the Levant desert.

Some scholars have proposed that manna is cognate with the Egyptian term mennu, meaning "food".[13] At the turn of the twentieth century, Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula were selling resin from the tamarisk tree as man es-simma, roughly meaning "heavenly manna".[11] Tamarisk trees (particularly Tamarix gallica) were once comparatively extensive throughout the southern Sinai, and their resin is similar to wax, melts in the sun, is sweet and aromatic (like honey), and has a dirty-yellow color, fitting somewhat with the Biblical descriptions of manna.[14][15] However, this resin is mostly composed from sugar, so it would be unlikely to provide sufficient nutrition for a population to survive over long periods of time,[14] and it would be very difficult for it to have been compacted to become cakes.[15]

Black ant with a clear bubble of honeydew produced by a green aphid.

Scale insects covered in waxy secretions.

In the Biblical account, the name manna is said to derive from the question man hu, seemingly meaning "What is it?";[16] this is perhaps an Aramaic etymology, not a Hebrew one.[15] Man is possibly cognate with the Arabic term man, meaning plant lice, with man hu thus meaning "this is plant lice",[15] which fits one widespread modern identification of manna, the crystallized honeydew of certain scale insects.[15][17] In the environment of a desert, such honeydew rapidly dries due to evaporation of its water content, becoming a sticky solid, and later turning whitish, yellowish, or brownish;[15] honeydew of this form is considered a delicacy in the Middle East, and is a good source of carbohydrates.[17]

The other widespread identification is that manna is the thalli of certain lichens (particularly Lecanora esculenta);[14][17] this food source is often used as a substitute for maize in the Eurasian Steppe.[14] This material is light, often drifting in the wind, and has a yellow outer coat with a white inside, somewhat matching the Biblical description of manna; it does need additional drying, and is definitely not similar to honey in taste.[14]

A number of ethnomycologists such as R. Gordon Wasson, John Marco Allegro, and Terence McKenna, have suggested that most characteristics of manna are similar to that of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms, notorious breeding grounds for insects, which decompose rapidly. These peculiar fungi naturally produce a number of molecules that resemble human neurochemicals, and first appear as small fibres (mycelia) that resemble hoarfrost. This speculation (also paralleled in Philip K. Dick's posthumously published The Transmigration of Timothy Archer) is supported in a wider cultural context when compared with the praise of Haoma in the Rigveda, Mexican praise of teonanácatl, the peyote sacrament of the Native American Church, and the Holy Ayahuasca used in the ritual of the União do Vegetal.[18]See: Biblical Entheogens

Other minority identifications of manna are that it was a kosher species of locust,[19] or that it was the sap of certain succulent plants (such as those of the genus Alhagi, which have an appetite-suppressing effect).[20]


Manna is from heaven, according to the Bible,[21] but the various identifications of manna are naturalistic. In the Mishnah, manna is treated as a supernatural substance, created during the twilight of the sixth day of Creation,[22] and ensured to be clean, before it arrives, by the sweeping of the ground by a northern wind and subsequent rains.[23] According to classical rabbinical literature, manna was ground in a heavenly mill for the use of the righteous, but some of it was allocated to the wicked and left for them to grind themselves.[11]

Use and function

Until they reached Canaan, the Israelites are implied by some passages in the Bible to have eaten only manna during their desert sojourn,[24] despite the availability of milk and meat from the livestock with which they traveled, and the references to provisions of fine flour, oil, and meat, in parts of the journey's narrative.[11]

As a natural food substance, manna would produce waste products; but in classical rabbinical literature, as a supernatural substance, it was held that manna produced no waste, resulting in no defecation among the Israelites until several decades later, when the manna had ceased to fall.[25] Modern medical science suggests the lack of defecation over such a long period of time would cause severe bowel problems, especially when other food later began to be consumed again. Classical rabbinical writers say that the Israelites complained about the lack of defecation, and were concerned about potential bowel problems.[25]

Many vegetarian Christians say that God had originally intended man would not eat meat because plants cannot move and killing them would not be sinful: manna, a nonmeat substance, is used to support this theory.[26] Further, when the people complained and wished for quail, God gave it to them, and those who ate it grew sick after.[27]

Food was not manna's only use; one classical rabbinical source states that the fragrant odor of manna was used in an Israelite perfume.[11]


Exodus says each day one omer of manna was gathered per family member,[28] and may imply this was regardless of how much effort was put into gathering it;[29] a midrash attributed to Rabbi Tanhuma remarks that although some were diligent enough to go into the fields to gather manna, others just lay down lazily and caught it with their outstretched hands.[30] The Talmud states that this factor was used to solve disputes about the ownership of slaves, since the number of omers of manna each household could gather would indicate how many people were legitimately part of the household;[31] the omers of manna for stolen slaves could only be gathered by legitimate owners, and therefore legitimate owners would have spare omers of manna.[31]

According to the Talmud, manna was found near the homes of those with strong belief in Yahweh, and far from the homes of those with doubts;[31] indeed, one classical midrash says that manna was intangible to Gentiles, as it would inevitably slip from their hands.[32] The Midrash Tanhuma holds that manna melted, formed liquid streams, was drunk by animals, flavored the animal flesh, and was thus indirectly eaten by Gentiles, this being the only manner that Gentiles could taste manna.[33] Despite these hints of uneven distribution, classical rabbinical literature expresses the view that manna fell in very large quantities each day. It holds that manna was layered out over 2,000 cubits square, between 50 and 60 cubits in height, enough to nourish the Israelites for 2,000 years[11] and to be seen from the palaces of every king in the East and West,[34] probably a metaphorical statement.


According to Exodus, Shabbat (Sabbath) was instituted the first week the manna appeared.[35] It states that twice as much manna as usual was available on the sixth mornings of the week, and none at all could be found on the seventh days;[36] although manna usually rotted and became maggot-infested after a single night,[7] manna which had been collected on the sixth day remained fresh until the second night.[37] Moses stated that the double portion of Preparation Day was to be consumed on Shabbat;[35] and that Yahweh instructed him no one should leave his place on Shabbat,[38] so that the people could rest during it.[39]

Form critics regard this part of the manna narrative to be spliced together from the Yahwist and Priestly traditions, with the Yahwist tradition emphasizing rest during Shabbat, while the Priestly tradition merely states that Shabbat exists, implying that the meaning of "Shabbat" was already known.[15][40] These critics regard this part of the manna narrative as an etiological supernature story designed to explain the origin of Shabbat observance, which in reality was probably pre-Mosaic.[15]

Duration of supply

Exodus states that the Israelites consumed the manna for 40 years, starting from the fifteenth day of the second month (Iyar 15),[41] but that it then ceased to appear once they had reached a settled land, and once they had reached the borders of Canaan (inhabited by the Canaanites).[42] Form critics attribute this variation to the view that each expression of the manna ceasing derives from different lore; the "settled land" is attributed to the Priestly tradition,[40][15] and "Canaan's borders" to the Yahwist tradition, or to a hypothetical later redaction to synchronize the account with that of the Book of Joshua,[40][15] which states that the manna ceased to appear on the day after the annual Passover festival (Nisan 14), when the Israelites had reached Gilgal.[43] The duration from Iyar 15 to Nisan 14, taken literally, is 40 years less one month.

There is also a disagreement among classical rabbinical writers as to when the manna ceased, particularly in regard to whether it remained after the death of Moses for a further 40 days, 70 days, or 14 years;[44] indeed, according to Joshua ben Levi, the manna ceased to appear at the moment that Moses died.[11]

The pot of manna

Despite the eventual termination of the supply of manna, Exodus states that a small amount of it survived within an omer-sized pot or jar, which was kept facing the Testimony (possibly, adjacent to the Ark of the Covenant);[45] it indicates that Yahweh instructed this of Moses, who delegated it to Aaron.[46] The Epistle to the Hebrews states that the pot was stored inside the Ark.[47] Classical rabbinical sources believe the pot was of gold; some say it was only there for the generation following Moses, and others that it survived at least until the time of Jeremiah.[11] However, the First Book of Kings states that it was absent earlier than Jeremiah, during Solomon's reign in the tenth century B.C.[48] Form critics attribute the mention of the pot to the Priestly tradition, concluding that the pot existed in the early sixth century B.C.[40]

Later cultural references

Manna Ash

By extension "manna" has been used to refer to any divine or spiritual nourishment.

For many years, Roman Catholics have annually collected a clear liquid from the tomb of Saint Nicholas;[49] legend attributes the pleasant perfume of this liquid as warding off evil, and it is sold to pilgrims as "the Manna of Saint Nicholas".[50] The liquid gradually seeps out of the tomb, but it is unclear whether it originates from the body within the tomb, or from the marble itself; since the town of Bari is a harbor, and the tomb is below sea level, there are several natural explanations for the manna fluid, including the transfer of seawater to the tomb by capillary action.[51]

In the seventeenth century, a woman marketed a clear, tasteless product as a cosmetic, "the Manna of Saint Nicholas of Bari". After the deaths of some 600 men, Italian authorities discovered that the alleged cosmetic was a preparation of arsenic, used by their wives.[52]

In a modern botanical context, manna is often used to refer to the secretions of various plants, especially of certain shrubs and trees, and in particular the sugars obtained by evaporating the sap of the Manna Ash, extracted by making small cuts in the bark.[53] The Manna Ash, native to southern Europe and southwest Asia, produces a blue-green sap, which has medicinal value as a mild laxative,[54] demulcent, and weak expectorant.[52]

German American author Kurt Vonnegut adapted the term "Manna From Heaven" to mean heavenly gifts from God in a general, philosophical sense. However, he was nowhere near the first to do so. He attributed Manna From Heaven as the "heavenly" actions of fate that operate to effect people.

Further reading

  • Arthur, James (2000). Mushrooms and Mankind: The Impact of Mushrooms on Human Consciousness and Religion. Escondido, CA: Book Tree. ISBN 1585091510. 
  • Heinrich, Clark (2002). Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press. ISBN 0892819979. 
  • Merkur, Dan (2000). The Mystery of Manna: The Psychedelic Sacrament of the Bible. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press. ISBN 0892817720. 
  • McKenna, Terence (1993). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution. New York, NY: Bantam Books. ISBN 0553371304. 

See also

  • Ayahuasca, entheogenic sacrament of União do Vegetal
  • Gaz (candy), a Manna nougat with chopped nuts from Isfahan, Iran
  • Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, potential correlation with Christmas tradition
  • Peyote, entheogen and sacrament of Native American Church
  • Psilocybe, "Flesh of God", teonanácatl
  • Tuf Voyaging, a fictional account
  • White Manna

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1 Exodus 16:14
  2. Numbers 11:9
  3. Exodus 16:21
  4. 4.0 4.1 Exodus 16:31
  5. Numbers 11:7
  6. Numbers 11:8
  7. 7.0 7.1 Exodus 16:20
  8. Peake's Commentary on the Bible
  9. Jewish Encyclopedia, "Book of Exodus", "Book of Numbers"
  10. Yoma 75b
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 11.7 Jewish Encyclopedia
  12. Quran 2:27, 7, 20
  13. George Ebers, Durch Gosen zum Sinai, p. 236
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 15.8 15.9 Peake's commentary on the Bible
  16. Exodus 16:15
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Manna Sinai
  18. Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods, New York, Harper Collins, p. 84
  19. Pancakes or Locusts
  20. Alhagi mannifera
  21. Psalm 78:24-25, 105:40, John 6:31
  22. Pirkei Avot 5:9
  23. Mekhilta, Beshalah, Wayassa, 3
  24. Numbers 21:5
  25. 25.0 25.1 Sifre (on Numbers) 87-89
  26. Soler, Jean, The Semiotics of Food in the Bible
  27. Numbers 11:4-11:35
  28. Exodus 16:16
  29. Exodus 16:17-18
  30. Tanhuma, Beshalah 22
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Yoma 75a
  32. Midrash Abkir (on Exodus) 258
  33. Midrash Tanhuma
  34. Yoma 76a
  35. 35.0 35.1 Exodus 16:23
  36. Exodus 16:5, 16:22, 16:26-27
  37. Exodus 16:24
  38. Exodus 16:27-29
  39. Exodus 16:30
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 40.3 Jewish Encyclopedia, "Book of Exodus"
  41. Exodus 16:1-4
  42. Exodus 16:35
  43. Joshua 5:10-12
  44. Jewish Encyclopedia, "Manna"
  45. Exodus 16:34
  46. Exodus 16:32-33
  47. Hebrews 9:4
  48. 1 Kings 8:9
  49. Devotion and Use of the Manna of Saint Nicholas, St. Nicholas Center
  50. Carroll, Rory, 2000-12-22, Bones of contention, The Guardian
  51. Girling, Richard, 2004-12-12, Talking Point: Now do you believe in Santa Claus?, The Times
  52. 52.0 52.1 Manna, Time magazine, 1927-08-29
  53. Rushforth, K., 1999, Trees of Britain and Europe, Collins, ISBN 0002200139
  54. Grieve, Mrs. M., Ash, Manna

External links

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