Taste and Text-ure

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Rob Golder

An oft-mentioned Rashi in this week’s parasha (Bemidbar 11:5, s.v. et ha’kishuim, quoting Sifre) describes how the manna we received in the desert could taste like almost anything its consumer would desire.  But I have great difficulty understanding how a substance shaped like coriander seeds could satisfy my craving for a steak or sushi.  For me, as a former mashgiach and avid foodie, taste and texture are absolutely inseparable.  Hence, Rashi’s manna evokes the experience of eating a meat- or fish-flavored jelly bean rather than a sophisticated and satisfying entrée.

This troubling disconnect between taste and texture intensifies when we attempt to taste any of the five types of Egyptian produce which we longed for in this week’s parashah, namely cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.  (Bemidbar 11:5)[1].  The Rabbis suggest that we longed for these particular species because they were the exceptions to the general rule that manna could have any taste desired.  The precise mode of this exception was disputed on Yoma 75a: [2]

את הקשואים ואת האבטיחים

רבי אמי ורבי אסי: חד אמר: טעם כל המינין – טעמו במן;  טעם חמשת המינין הללו – לא טעמו בו

וחד אמר: טעם כל המינין – טעמו טעמן וממשן; והללו – טעמן ולא ממשן

(Bemidbar 11:5) “The cucumbers and the melons

Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi:                                                                                                                                 One said:                                                                                                                                                       they could taste the taste of all species in the manna,                                                                          but these five species – they could not taste in it.                                                                              But the other said:                                                                                                                                    they could taste the taste and substance (mamashan) of all species in the manner,             but these – only their taste and not their substance.                                                                 (Yoma 75a)

In Gilyonei HaShas (Berachot 48b), Rabbi Yosef Engel applies this machloket to a fascinating hypothetical:  whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on the seder night by imagining the flavor of matzah while eating manna.  According to the first opinion in Yoma, eating the matzah-flavored manna is no better than eating a matzah-flavored jelly bean.  But, Rabbi Engel argues, according to the second opinion, manna that has both the taste and substance of matzah either is in fact matzah, or at the very least is a sufficiently similar substitute to be valid for the purpose of the mitzvah of achilat matzahRitva (Kiddushin 38a) disagrees, asserting that despite being alike in taste and substance to matzah, matzah-flavored manna is fundamentally different from real matzah because it is divinely created and not composed of the five grains from which matzah may be formed.

One of my favorite meforshim and poskim, the Rogotchover Rebbe (Responsa Tzofnat Paneach 3) pushes the first opinion in Yoma even further, asking whether one would be allowed to eat manna that tastes like a forbidden food.  He allows treif-tasting manna for two reasons: 1) a general principle that Hashem would not use a miracle to create food that is forbidden (using the motif of “ein davar tamei yored min ha’shamayim” found in Sanhedrin 59a) and 2) because the taste and substance of the food are so unified as an entity that the forbidden taste is consumed by the permitted nature of the physical substance (“davar ha’na’aseh mi’kama minim metziut achat hu.”)

Both the Ritva and the Rogotchover concur in minimizing the effect of our gustatory perceptions on the metaphysical status of food.  We internalize the lessons of the manna not through what we choose to taste, but through the experience of living by direct divine substance.  Manna is a gift with stringent terms and conditions, both physical and spiritual, and not an “any type of food you can eat” buffet.  Nevertheless, manna is also an avenue by which Hashem allows us to perceive the world from whatever perspective we choose – even if we seek to experience the taste of the forbidden – so long as we continue to act in accordance with divine law and with respect and appreciation for how our continued sustenance, whether by bread of the heavens or bread of the earth, is truly miraculous.

May we all soon be blessed with the experience of the taste and substance of the korbanot in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.

[1] My wife and I have established the custom of serving an appetizer plate including these five foods at the seder in order to relive our culinary experiences in Egypt.

[2] Rashi (s.v. hallalu lo ta’amu) explains that the five Egyptian foods were excluded from the manna menu because of the danger that they supposedly posed to pregnant women and young children.  Although later commentators have suggested alternative reasons in light of our developing understanding of medicine over the generations, I am less concerned with the reason for the distinction than with the machloket that results from making the distinction.



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