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The manna is to Jewish history what Shabbat is to the workday week: a precedent

Bread From Heaven

Bread From Heaven


Shabbat. The very word evokes the image of a richly laid table, the glint of candlelight on silver, the aroma of chicken soup mingling with stewing cholent. The Torah tells us to honor the most spiritual of days with fine clothes and tableware, and to delight in it with meat and wine.1 What on an ordinary weekday would strike us as extravagant and mundane, on Shabbat assumes an aura of holiness, as if the very nature of the material has been sublimated.

We know of Jews who scrimped and saved the entire week, who pawned the only things of value in their homes, to buy wine, challah, fish, and meat for the Shabbat meals. There is even a law in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) that legislates to what extent one may, and ought, to go:

The more one spends on the Shabbat, preparing more numerous and superior dishes, the better — as long as it is within his means. This also includes one who does not have money to spend but has possessions to pawn: he should borrow against them for his Shabbat expenses, and the Almighty will provide him with the means to repay. It is regarding such a case that our sages have said: "G‑d says, 'Borrow on My account, and I will repay.'"2 ... However, one who has nothing to pawn is under no obligation to spend beyond his means. Therefore, he should not borrow with the expectation that G‑d will repay, since in such a case the above "guarantee" would not apply.3

In these few lines, the Shulchan Aruch expresses a profound truth about the relationship between Shabbat and the workweek, and about man's material involvements in general.

Let us examine this law more closely. Why this difference between one who has something of value against which to borrow, and one who does not? In any case, the pawned object will not be sold to purchase food for Shabbat — G‑d Himself guarantees that "I will repay." Certainly, the Shulchan Aruch is not suggesting that we need an alternate source of funds "just in case" G‑d doesn't make good on His promise! The pawning of an object, then, is a mere formality — G‑d will provide the money to repay the loan. Nevertheless, without this "formality" no loan is to be taken out, since in such a case G‑d does not commit Himself to provide for one's Shabbat needs.

But this is the Jew's approach to earning a living in general. The Jew believes that his sustenance comes from G‑d, that "a person's earnings for the year are set by the Almighty on Rosh Hashanah,"4 and that no amount of effort and ingenuity on his part will increase it in the slightest. Why, then, work for a living at all? Why need the laborer toil, the artisan create, and the businessman deal, if in any case G‑d will supply them with what they have been assigned on Rosh Hashanah? Because G‑d has commanded us to fashion a "vessel" through which He then promises to channel His blessings — in the words of the Torah, "G‑d shall bless you in all that you shall do."5 Our workday efforts, then, are nothing more than a formality, a natural "front" for a supernatural process. G‑d provides our needs, without regard to such natural criteria as a person's expertise, capital, and enterprise. On the other hand, G‑d insists on this formality, promising the bestowal of His blessing only when man creates the vessel enabled by his natural talents and resources.

The Economics of Faith

At first glance, it may seem that there is little practical difference between the Torah's approach and the conventional approach that "my power and my physical might have generated this fortune."6 According to both approaches, one must utilize, to the utmost, the natural tools at one's disposal in order to earn a living — whether it is because these natural tools actually generate one's income, or because they are needed as a "vessel" to receive a unilateral gift from Above.

In truth, however, these two approaches result in radically different behaviors in work, business, and money management.

What happens, for example, when a struggling shopkeeper is faced with the dilemma of whether to open his establishment on Shabbat? Conventional wisdom will dictate that more business hours will generate more income, positing that the shopkeeper must choose between his religious beliefs and his financial betterment. On the other hand, one who knows that his shop, and all the time and toil invested in it, is only a channel for G‑d's blessing, understands the absurdity in expanding the channel in a manner that violates the will of the supernal provider. This would be comparable to reducing the fuel supply of a power plant in order to allocate funds for the construction of additional power lines, in the hope that this would increase the net output of the plant. Certainly, it is important to put up power lines; without them, the energy produced by the plant will not reach its intended destination. But simply stringing more lines from the plant will not generate more power, especially if such activity is to the detriment of the power's source. To violate the Shabbat (or any divine command, such as the prohibitions against stealing, lying, withholding payment from one's employees or debtors, dealing in merchandise that causes physical or moral harm to its consumers, etc.) to increase one's income is not only detrimental to one's spiritual health; it's also bad business sense.

Another difference between these two approaches is how a person views his contributions to charity. From the conventional perspective, money given to charity represents a reduction in one's financial resources. A person may still be moved to give out of compassion, duty, or guilt; but he will weigh each dollar against the sacrifice it involves — what he is "giving up" in order to give. On the other hand, to a person who believes that G‑d's blessing is the ultimate — and only — source of wealth, charity is an investment. Indeed, to give to charity is far more effective an investment than any business initiative: the latter only serves to construct the channel (the nature of which in no way determines how much will be funneled through it), while the former stimulates the source, as per the divine promise/command, "Tithe, so that you may prosper."7 To such a person, it is also obvious that he will not "save" anything by disregarding the divine imperative to aid a fellow in need.8

Finally, these two approaches differ in the extent of their devotion to the building of a career or business. True, both concur that the natural effort must be made — that one must utilize, to the utmost, the tools at one's disposal to earn a living. But what exactly does "utilizing to the utmost" mean? To the person who sees his career or business as the source of his income, "the utmost" is an open-ended parameter: the greater one's efforts, the greater one's success — or at least, the greater one's chances for success. Eight daily hours become 10 become 12 become 18. Second and third jobs are assumed to cover all possibilities. Plans and anxieties invade every waking (and non-waking) thought.

On the other hand, when a person sees his career or business as nothing more than a formality, as a vessel constructed at G‑d's behest, "the utmost" is the utmost that G‑d requires. Anything beyond that is a waste of time and effort. And what does G‑d require? That we create a natural framework that would suffice as the receptacle for our most basic needs. Should He desire to grant us more than our most basic needs, He will do so — within that framework. Going to greater lengths will not increase the chances of this happening; on the contrary, it can only decrease them, by impinging on those pursuits and activities (prayer, Torah study, observance of mitzvot) that relate directly to the source of all blessing.9

The Precedent

Shabbat is the day "from which all other days are blessed": on Shabbat we are granted, in potential, all the spiritual and material blessing that the Almighty has chosen to impart to us in the course of the following week.10 So although Shabbat is a day utterly free of all material cares — a day on which we are to consider "all our work as done"11 — it is also the day that establishes the precedent as to how we are to approach our workday endeavors.

Thus, on Shabbat we delight in food, drink, and fine clothes. Wednesday evening, such feasting would verge on the hedonistic; on Shabbat, however, the pleasure derived from meat and wine is a holy pleasure, a pleasure that elevates its material embodiment, instead of entangling the indulger in its corporeal trappings. This sublimation of the material establishes a precedent: now, when we enter the workday world, a world in which the mundane remains mundane, the memory of Shabbat empowers us to harness it to serve a higher, G‑dly end.

And to procure our Shabbat pleasures, we enter a consciousness in which our faith in G‑d's provision takes no account of our financial prospects. Borrow on My account, and I will repay! Pawn the family heirloom to finance a meal! On a Monday morning, such behavior would be nothing less than reckless; on Shabbat, however, we are establishing a precedent. Now, when we enter the workday world, a world in which we must be more cautious in our borrowing, we carry this mindset with us: it is G‑d who provides, regardless of — and despite the economic prospects of — the "vessel" we create to receive His blessing. Regardless of, and despite, the effort we invest in this vessel beyond the minimal requirements mandated by the supernal provider Himself.

On the other hand, even on Shabbat there must be the formality of a conventional economic context in which the loan is acquired. Although we have not the slightest doubt that the Almighty, not the mortgaged collateral, will pay for our feast, we must still create the vessel. For such is the nature of the precedent that we are establishing.

The 40-Year Shabbat

The first laws of Shabbat to be specified in the Torah appear in the 16th chapter of Exodus. This is the chapter known as "The Section of the Manna" (Parshat Ha-Man), the chapter that tells the story of the miraculous "bread from heaven" that sustained the people of Israel during their 40-year journey in the desert.

Nothing in Torah is coincidental. The fact that the Torah chooses the story of the manna as the background against which to begin spelling out the guidelines for Shabbat observance means that Shabbat and manna are interrelated. Indeed, one of the very first things we are told about Shabbat is that "G‑d blessed the seventh day and sanctified it,"12 which the Midrash interprets as follows: "He blessed it with manna and sanctified it with manna."13 This link is also emphasized by a ruling by the 10th-century sage and Halachist R. Saadiah Gaon: If a group of Jews find themselves in a situation where they do not know which Torah-section is to be read on a certain Shabbat, they should read the section that pertains to Shabbat in general — the Section of the Manna.14

The link between Shabbat and manna is even more pronounced in regard to the Shabbat meals. The practice of eating three meals in the course of Shabbat is derived from Exodus 16:25, where the word "today" appears three times regarding the eating of the manna on Shabbat.15 The two challah loaves16 that grace the Shabbat table commemorate the double portion of manna that was provided each Friday in honor of the Shabbat. We spread a cloth under the challot and drape another cloth over them, for such was the manner in which we received the manna: protected, below and above, by two layers of dew.17

Indeed, the manna is to Jewish history — or rather, to the history of Jewish labor — what Shabbat is to the workweek: a precedent.

What greater exemplar can there be of the principle that G‑d is the sole provider of sustenance? The manna was nourishment that literally descended from heaven. No matter how much effort a person invested in obtaining it, no matter how much manna he gathered, he ended up with his precise nutritional needs for a single day: no more, no less.18 It was forbidden to set aside manna from one day to the next; those who attempted to do so found that their "savings" had spoiled.19 The manna trained the first generation of Jews to complete dependence and utter reliance upon G‑d for their daily bread.

On the other hand, the manna was not a direct, unilateral infusion of vitality from the supernal source of life into the body: one had to do something to obtain it. "For the righteous," says the Talmud, "it came down on their doorstep. The average man had to go out and gather it. The wicked had to venture far to find it... For the righteous, it was bread. For the average man it was cakes of dough. The wicked had to mill it or pound it in a mortar."20 While the natural "vessel" that one needed to create differed from individual to individual (determined by one's relationship with the divine provider), even the righteous had to step out of their tents, pick up the manna, eat it and digest it. For, as in the weekly case of Shabbat, the precedent had to include an element of "channel building."21

The manna came to impart a dual lesson to the consciousness of a nation. Bread comes from heaven; gathering more won't get you more, and gathering less (as long as you do what is required of you) won't get you less. On the other hand, although the nurturing of man is a daily miracle, the miracle can be received only in a vessel of earthly construction.

Indeed, the blessing we recite after each meal ("Blessed are You, G‑d... who nourishes the entire world with His goodness, with grace, with kindness, and with compassion...") is the very same blessing composed by Moses in gratitude for the manna. Ultimately, the bread we eat — bread we purchase with money earned through our respective professions; bread that is sown, reaped, milled, kneaded, and baked — is no less "bread from heaven" than the manna consumed by our ancestors. Our challenge is to recognize what was obvious to a generation who daily saw their daily bread descending from the heavens.22

"You shall call the Shabbat, pleasure; the holy day of G‑d, honored" (Isaiah 58:13). Halachah (Torah law) defines the obligation to pleasure and honor the Shabbat to include:
  1. eating three festive meals, the first two of which should include at least two cooked dishes;
  2. including in these meals fish, meat, wine, and warm food (unless any of these cause a person discomfort rather than pleasure);
  3. lighting candles at the place where the meals are eaten;
  4. singing of songs in honor of the Shabbat (z'mirot) at the Shabbat table;
  5. sleep;
  6. marital relations;
  7. washing and grooming the body before Shabbat;
  8. cleaning the house for Shabbat;
  9. dressing in freshly cleaned and pressed festive clothes;
  10. setting the Shabbat table in a beautiful and luxurious manner;
  11. setting aside all weekday worries from one's mind.
(Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Shabbat 242:1-2, 7, 11; 260:1; 262; 263:1; 280:1; 281:1-2; 306:1).
Talmud, Beitzah 15b. ("A person's sustenance for the year is allotted him on Rosh Hashanah, except for what he spends on Shabbat and the festivals; here, the more he spends, the more is repaid to him" — ibid.)
Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Shabbat 242:3. See the commentary of Tosafot and the glosses on the Rosh to Talmud, ibid.
Talmud, ibid. Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, is the day that G‑d decides the fate of every creature. "On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed... who shall live and who shall die... who shall enjoy tranquility and who shall be afflicted with suffering; who shall grow rich and who shall be impoverished; who shall be humiliated and who shall rise" (from the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
Deuteronomy 15:18, as per Sifri.
Ibid., 8:17.
Ibid., 14:22, as per Talmud, Shabbat 119a.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 10a) relates the following story: One year, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai repeatedly pressured his nephews, two wealthy businessmen, to contribute to charity. In the course of the year they gave, at his prodding, 683 dinars. The day before Yom Kippur they were arrested on a libelous charge of tax evasion and thrown into prison. Rabbi Yochanan assured them that the matter would be settled with 17 dinars. "How do you know?" they asked him. "In the beginning of the year," he told them, "it was revealed to me in a dream that it has been decreed that you will sustain a loss of 700 dinars. This is why I pressured you to contribute to charity, so that the money you give should supplant your ordained loss. The amount you gave comes to 17 dinars less than 700, so this is the sum that you will now have to part with."
See Derech Mitzvotecha, p. 214.
Zohar, part II, 88a. See footnote #13 below.
Exodus 20:9, as per Rashi's commentary.
Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 11:2. The simple meaning of this is that the Shabbat was blessed in that a double portion of manna was provided on Friday in its honor, and it was sanctified in that no manna descended on Shabbat itself, underscoring the holiness of the day (Midrash Rabbah, ibid.). The Zohar, however, explains that the entire week's supply of manna was provided in essence on Shabbat, though its descent as a physical food was realized in the course of the week, as Shabbat is the day "from which all other days are blessed" (Zohar, part II, 63b and 88a; Ohr Hatorah, Beshalach, pp. 638-639; see section marked by footnote #10 above).
Quoted in Sefer Ha'itim, Laws of Shabbat Blessings and Pleasure 184.
Talmud, Shabbat 117b.
Lechem mishneh — the term is from Exodus 16:22.
Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Shabbat 274:1; ibid., 271:17. For the deeper significance of this dew, see footnote #21 below.
Ibid., 16:19-20.
Talmud, Yoma 75a, derived from Exodus 16:4 and Numbers 11:7-8.
Thus, the Torah uses the idiom "rain" to describe the manna's descent from heaven: "G‑d said to Moses: 'Behold, I shall rain down bread to you from the heavens'" (Exodus 16:4). Rain comes down from above, but only because first "a mist rises from the earth" (Genesis 2:6); rain is thus the metaphor for a bestowal from Above that must be stimulated by human initiative from below. However, the manna is also associated with dew ("When the dew descended upon the camp, the manna would descend upon it" — Numbers 11:9), which connotes an utterly unilateral initiative from Above (cf. Talmud, Taanit 3a: "Rain may be withheld (in punishment for wrongdoing); dew is never withheld"). The manna thus embodies both these elements: the concept that we generate nothing on our own and are sustained solely by the Almighty, and the imperative to create a vessel "below" to evoke and receive the divine blessing. See Likkutei Torah, Haazinu 73a-c and 74a-76a.
Based on the Rebbe's talks, Shevat 15, 5737 (February 3, 1977), and on numerous other occasions (Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVI, pp. 173-182; see also vol. II, p. 535; vol. XVII, pp. 294-299; et al).
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Mr. wendel fettig April 20, 2011

sense of belonging This has been a great blessing to me i don’t have fellowship with anyone but i feel like im part of something now im enjoying the Passover week now although it is in observence of it no necessarily in proper tradition Reply

Anonymous Ireland January 30, 2007

Bread from Heav en Highly interesting and sensible as a philosphy of living. Needs to be read several times as there is so much depth to it. I did not previously know the connection between manna and challah. Reply

Anonymous ludhiana, punjab, i n d ia April 18, 2006

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