This is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah

Ethics of the Fathers, 6:4


Contrast this with Rabbi Jonathan's promise in the 9th Mishnah of chapter IV of the Ethics: "Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth."

Is poverty the ideal, the way of life most conducive to the acquisition of Torah, or is wealth the more desirable state, the reward for observing Torah despite one's poverty?

The Perfect Food

- The Torah was given only to the eaters of the manna (Midrash)

The generation of Jews who physically stood at Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d derived their nourishment not from the conventional "bread from the earth," but from the more refined "bread from heaven" with which the Almighty sustained them. But the Torah has been given to all generations of Jews. So how does one, today, become a "manna eater?"

After forty years of eating manna, the people of Israel were encamped on the eastern bank of the Jordan, poised to enter the Holy Land and assume the natural labors of plowing, sowing and harvesting for their bread. At this point, Moses spoke to them of the significance of the heavenly bread that had sustained them throughout their wanderings in the desert:

“He afflicted you, He made you go hungry, and He fed the manna which neither you nor your ancestors had ever experienced. This was to teach you that man does not by bread alone, but by the utterance of G -d's mouth does man live.”

For 40 years, manna had freed them from all material concerns. It was the perfect food, providing its consumer with his precise daily nutritional needs - no more, no less. Nevertheless - indeed, for this very reason - Moses calls it bread of affliction and poverty. For the generation that lived on the manna experienced, on a daily basis, man's utter dependence on G‑d as the sustainer of life. The manna taught them that man achieves nothing on his own: no matter how much a person labored to gather the manna, his efforts never yielded more than his exact requirements for a single day.

The challenge for us is that we, too, should be "eaters of the manna." That even as we eat ordinary bread, earned by the sweat of our brow, we recognize that it is G‑d who creates the bread and imbues it with the ability to sustain life. That we recognize that it is the "utterance of G -d's mouth" within the bread—that is to say, the divine speech by which G‑d created, and continues to create, all of existence—that nourishes us.

Hence, in the opening section of Grace after Meals, we acknowledge G‑d as "He who in His goodness provides sustenance for the entire world." In fact, this is the very blessing composed by Moses in gratitude for the "bread from heaven" that rained down on his generation in the desert! We thank G‑d for our bread, which our cunning and toil have "earned us," with the same words our ancestors thanked Him for the manna. In other words, we strive to experience the same degree of dependency on G‑d for our daily sustenance that the manna inspired in Moses' generation, to whom man's intrinsic "poverty" was so obviously demonstrated.

The Way of Torah

This explains the seemingly contradictory Mishnahs quoted above. Wealth, in itself, is not a liability to the acquisition of Torah - it can even be an asset. What is crucial, however, is an attitude and mind-set of poverty - the poverty of the manna-eater who appreciates that he, on his own, has nothing save what he is granted from Above. "This - and only this - is the way of Torah," of gaining insight into the wisdom and will of G‑d.