In one of my favorite images from the classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” young Violet Beauregarde eats a piece of gum embedded with the sequential flavors of a three-course meal. First it tastes like tomato soup, then roast beef with potatoes and finally blueberry pie for dessert. (Those familiar with the book or the movie will recall that the blueberry situation ends badly.)
It’s a dream concept — a food that could taste like whatever one wanted its flavor to be! But well before Charlie and Willy Wonka, the Jewish people ate manna in the dessert as is detailed in this week’s Torah portion. This white substance that fell fresh each day — except on Shabbat — is described by the Talmud in Yoma 75 as having different flavors depending on who was eating it and their personal preferences. If one had to pick one food to eat for 40 years straight, then this was it. What could one ever miss with a food that tastes like anything and everything?
But read the fine print in the Torah: There were a few exceptions. For example, one couldn’t get their manna to taste like fish. In Numbers 11:5, the Jewish people complain that they longingly remember the fish they were allowed to eat in Egypt. This is taken as an indication that they were enduring 40 years of life without sushi.
But why this of all flavors to exclude? And why tell us all the details about how manna fell and how much one could take? Do we need to know this, given that it was a one-time set of laws never to be practiced again?
Research into the subject of fish in the Jewish tradition reveals a few distinct aspects of these marine inhabitants. In Genesis, fish are the first animals created. The Midrash speaks of a great fish that is consumed in the peaceful times of the Messiah, and in the Torah text they are not given individual species names by Adam (they are just called “fish”). They are not wiped out during Noah’s flood and are used by Jacob as a blessing to his grandsons (“You should multiply abundantly as fish”).
Don’t worry if you haven’t put it all together yet — there is still one more key piece.
Ever heard a bubbe respond to some mention of a good thing with “kin ahora”? (This might have been followed by other favorites like “poo poo poo” and maybe spitting on the floor.) You might not have asked at the time, but she was trying to ward off the “ayin harah,” or “evil eye.” In the popular conception, she is keeping away that force that will zap you if you talk about what is going well.
However, an examination of the use of the term in the Talmud reveals a different picture entirely. The phrase “ayin harah” refers, quite simply, to jealousy. It is the eye of one who hears you proclaim good fortune and wishes it were their own.
The Talmud (Sotah 36B) thus declares that ayin harah doesn’t apply to fish, who multiply unseen in the murky depths. Similarly, it explains that Jacob blessed his progeny to grow numerous without anyone coveting their numbers.
One may then suggest that fish, not subject to jealousy, are symbolically in no need of individual names to call their own. As the first animals created, they aren’t jealous of that which came before them. They survived the flood (which the Torah describes as being prompted by chamas — jealousy and violence), and are eaten in the messianic era, when all people are satisfied with what they have and achieve peace. It also won’t be a flavor for manna — it won’t try to be what it is not.
That was the message of manna: You get what is for you. Don’t grab too much. Just take your daily portion and trust in HaShem. And to this day we have two challah loaves on Shabbat, because on Shabbat we move past trying to get more. Instead, we enjoy what HaShem has provided: a double portion on Fridays to take care of . Hopefully we’ll get what we need.
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.