Commentary

Manna as a “Detox Diet”: On Rav Mendel of Rymanov’s Segulah for Parnassah

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Elli Fischer

 

The manna, the miraculous food that sustained the Israelites during their years in the wilderness, maintains a powerful hold on our collective imagination. Each morning, except for Shabbat, our ancestors would wake up and find perfect nutrition at their doors. Never in human history was it more apparent that God takes care of all our material needs.

Though the manna stopped falling when Joshua led the people into Eretz Yisrael, it was never forgotten. A container of manna was kept in the Kodesh ha-Kodashim so that we would remember. The Gemara tells us, “Moshe instituted the blessing of ‘ha-zan et ha-kol’ (Who sustains all) when the manna descended for them” (Berakhot 48b); thus, every time we recite Birkat ha-Mazon, we implicitly invoke the manna and the palpable sense that the Holy One sustains us.

Already in the Geonic era, we find references to people who would recite Parashat ha-Man, the section of Parashat Beshalah that describes the first appearance of the manna, on a daily basis. The very first siman of the Orah Hayyim section of Tur states, “It is good to recite…Parashat Ha-man.” The classic commentators offer two reasons why. Beit Yosef (ad loc.), echoing the Gemara in Berakhot, explains, “Parashat ha-Man – so that one will believe that all his sustenance reaches him through divine providence.” Perishah (ad loc.) states: “This is the language of my master, of blessed memory: It says in Yerushalmi Berakhot: Anyone who recites Parashat ha-Man each day is assured that he will not have too little sustenance.”[1] Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 1:5) codifies the ruling of Tur.

According to the first reason, the purpose of reciting this passage is so that we internalize our complete reliance on Hashem for all our material needs; according to the second reason, recitation of the passage has mystical properties that safeguard our material sustenance. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and, arguably, are two sides of the same coin: One who places his trust in Hashem merits a providential guarantee of sustenance.

As these sources make clear, the daily recitation of Parashat ha-Man, even if it was not observed by many people, was known as a segulah and is recommended in major halakhic codes – Tur, Beit Yosef, Mishnah Berurah, and others. Why, then, are we bombarded with reminders to recite Parashat ha-Man, twice in Scripture and once in translation (shenayim Mikra ve-ehad Targum), specifically on Tuesday of Parashat Beshalah? Moreover, this segulah for livelihood is traced in Sefer Nitei Gavriel (Hilkhot Purim, p. 50) to R. Avraham Shalom Halberstam of Stropkov, who attributes it to Rav Menahem Mendel of Rymanov (1745-1815). The Rymanover’s disciples, and his disciples’ disciples, founded some of the most prominent Hasidic dynasties to emerge in Galicia and Hungary, including Sanz, Deyzh, Dinov, Munkacs, Satmar, and others, as well as offshoots and splinter groups. It is not surprising that the Stropkover, a grandson of the Divrei Hayyim of Sanz, would preserve and report traditions in the name of R. Mendel. R. Mendel wrote very little, and what we know of his teaching comes to us almost exclusively from oral traditions propagated by his spiritual heirs. Some of these traditions were first written and printed a century after his death. Yet even presuming that the attribution to R. Mendel is reliable, we must consider how the recitation of Parashat ha-Man, a practice with a thousand year history, recently came to be associated almost exclusively with one particular Hasidic master.

In truth, if any figure of the last several hundred years should be associated with the manna, it is R. Mendel of Rymanov. Most of the discourses in the main collection of his teachings, Menahem Tziyyon, are about the manna, and he spoke about the manna all year round. The introduction to the sefer, which was published in 1851 by the descendants of his close disciple, R. Yehezkel Paneth, states that every Shabbat for 22 consecutive years, the Rymanover spoke about the manna.

The major theme of R. Mendel’s approach to the manna is its refinement and spirituality. In several discourses, he posits that the manna was, in fact, inhaled through the trachea, not ingested through the esophagus. There was nothing superfluous about the manna; it was precisely what was necessary to keep the body intact and tethered to the soul, nothing more. It produced no waste, but was completely absorbed by the body. Consequently, consuming the manna purified and refined the body and the mind. This was its foremost property, to which R. Mendel refers repeatedly in the pages of Menahem Tziyyon.

A corollary of this theme comports strongly with his broader attitude toward consumerism: Consumption beyond the essential can lead down a dangerous path. The few extant writings from R. Mendel’s pen – a few letters to disciples and sumptuary regulations that he instituted in Rymanov in the last year of his life – show that he was particularly concerned about altering modes of dress. Perhaps most famous is his opposition to changing the direction of the buttoning from right-over-left to left-over-right. He counseled constant vigilance against the allure of European fashion and consumer culture.

It would be easy to dismiss R. Mendel as a “reactionary” who felt threatened by new styles and new ideas, by the two great movements, Enlightenment and Emancipation, that caused great upheaval in Europe for most of his adult life. However, certain other features of his life and thought complicate and even mitigate against such a conclusion. For one thing, R. Mendel was a Bonapartist, seeing in Napoleon’s victories harbingers of ultimate redemption. Other Hasidic leaders of his time, perhaps most famously R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, were deeply concerned that the political emancipation professed by Bonaparte would, if implemented, wreak havoc on the traditional Jewish way of life. While there are different interpretations of R. Mendel’s pro-Napoleon stance, it clearly demonstrates that his opposition to emancipation was far from absolute.

Another facet of R. Mendel’s biography sheds further light on his profoundly counter-cultural approach. Little is known about his early years, but one common thread is that he was of German origin. Varying accounts have him studying in “Hinnukh Nearim,” the Berlin school established by the influential court Jew Daniel Yoffe, the hub of early Haskalah. One legend, recorded by Shai Agnon, posits that he was a classmate of Moses Mendelssohn in that school, and that the two were childhood friends. (This is untenable, as Mendelssohn was significantly older than R. Mendel, but, as they say, they don’t tell these stories about you and me.) Another account reports that R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, of whom R. Mendel became a – perhaps the – main disciple, would call him “the little German.”

The partitions of Poland in the late-18th century brought huge numbers of Jews under the control of the Austrian empire, which undertook numerous measures to modernize and germanize the Jews of Galicia – the Polish territories annexed by Austria – often with the aid of Jews who had already begun to germanize. In R. Mendel we see an opposite movement, a German who turned to the East, moving from Berlin, a center of world culture and Jewish enlightenment, to the towns and villages of Galicia, where Jews struggled to make a living while maintaining tradition in the face of a rapidly encroaching German culture. It was there that R. Mendel exhorted his adherents to resist the allure of German culture, as its spiritual effects would inevitably be negative.[2]

The key symbol of his turn away from broader culture was the manna, and on occasion he made these connections explicit:

When we were in the iron furnace, absorbed and immersed in the abominations of Egypt, we were ignorant of God to the extent that the ministering angels said, “These are idolaters and those are idolaters.” But God’s truth is eternal; He kept His covenant and oath to our forefathers that He would make us a holy nation and a treasured people. Therefore, He brought us into the wilderness and gave us bread from heaven which was entirely spiritual and intellectual. It had no waste and was thus absorbed entirely into the body…

Indeed, even today, in this cruel and bitter exile, we long and yearn for the manna. O, that we might be fed from it, so that we may have the eyes to remove occlusion from our hearts and cast away the fog of folly from before us. (Menahem Tziyyon 12b)

In this discourse, Egypt, the most advanced culture of its day, is parallel to the present exile that occludes our hearts and enshrouds us in a fog of folly. In this scheme, the manna is a “detox diet,” a simple, austere regimen that cleanses us of all the ill effects of the idolatrous culture that we absorbed.

Another discourse links the manna with the turn away from general culture, opposition to changing modes of dress, and the general spirit of competition and jealousy that animates the desire to consume more:

It is known that anyone who wants to become close to God must first fix his character and make good, upright character part of his habit and nature. The root of all good character traits is to love kindness and to be benevolent to all… and to increase peace with every person. This will cause the removal of jealousy toward another person from his heart.

Scripture teaches us this when it says, “Your clothes did not wear out from on you.” This implies that for all forty years, they retained the same styles and modes, even though each of them owned ninety fully-loaded donkeys. Nevertheless, they sufficed with one set of clothes and did not seek out new modes of dress, as people are accustomed to doing nowadays, as each day anew they change their style of dress. No two days are the same…

In Egypt there were worthless Israelites, as there are in the present exile, when many go wrong by wearing new gentile clothing each day. They did not leave Egypt… However, those who merited to leave Egypt held fast to the traits of their forefathers and did not change their conduct. Thus, even while they were in the wilderness they did not change their tastes. And to support and reinforce this, they were given the manna, to ingrain within them the trait of frugality and not seeking luxuries.[3]

If the manna had any appearance or aroma, it would have caused a bit of envy, for one would see that his friend’s manna appears different from his own… This is not the case when it comes to taste, which is sensed only by the palate of the person eating. (Menahem Tziyyon 50b-51)

In this passage, R. Mendel envisions the Israelites in the wilderness as an ideal society, where the style of clothing never changes, everyone eats food that, at least in appearance, is all exactly the same, people do not experience envy, and people can thus resist the material temptations that lead to assimilation, idolatry, and bondage. He wrote with the perspective of someone who had been to Egypt and was one of the lucky few to escape, exhorting his followers not to fall into the honey trap that ensnared so many of their fellows.

With this understanding of R. Mendel of Rymanov’s conception of the manna, we can now reassess the meaning of the segulah attributed to him and see how it differs and perhaps elaborates the two views cited above. R. Mendel was keenly aware of the poverty that surrounded him in Galicia as well as the economic opportunities afforded to those who would adapt themselves to German modes of language and dress prevailing in Austria, Galicia’s imperial master. His counsel, though, was to turn down these opportunities and instead to focus on the manna, which would “ingrain within them the trait of frugality.”

In R. Mendel’s view, could reciting Parashat ha-Man on a particular day increase one’s wealth? Perhaps, but only with some major caveats about how that wealth is obtained and what must never be sacrificed in order to obtain it. What is certain is that meditating upon the manna, in his view, implants within us a sense of contentment, an eschewing of ostentation, and freedom from jealousy and envy. Maybe reciting Parashat ha-Man really magically multiplies our wealth, but maybe its special property, its segulah, is that it makes us more content with what we already have.


[1] Perishah’s “master” was R. Shlomo Luria (Maharshal), who was, along with Rema, the leading sage of 16th century Poland. This passage does not appear in extant versions of the Yerushalmi. It is cited in Tashbetz Katan §256, a work composed by a student of Maharam of Rothenburg in the late 13th or early 14th century. Mishnah Berurah 1:13 cites this Yerushalmi (without the words “each day”). In his Torah commentary (Exodus 16:16), Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher writes: “There is a tradition in the hands of the Sages that anyone who recites Parashat ha-Man each day is assured that he will never have a lack of food.” Similarly, a contemporary of Perishah and brother of the Shelah, R. Yaakov ben Avraham Horowitz, in his notes to his father’s Yesh Nohalim (n. 11 in the first edition, Prague, 1615), writes: “I found in the words of the kabbalists that the segulah of Parashat ha-Man is to recite it shenayim Mikra ve-ehad Targum.” R. Yosef Yozpa Kosman, in Noheg Ka-tzon Yosef (Laws of Daily Practice §34), writes: “It states in Rabbeinu Tam’s Sefer Ha-Yashar that one who recites Parashat ha-Man daily, shenayim Mikra ve-ehad Targum, is assured that he will not have insufficient sustenance.” Malbim cites this passage from Sefer Ha-Yashar in Artzot Ha-Hayyim (Ha-me’ir La-aretz 1:51), his commentary on Orah Hayyim. Thus, we have several variations on a tradition, which first appears in the late medieval era, that reciting Parashat ha-Man ensures one’s basic sustenance.

[2] For biographical information on R. Mendel and discussions of his opposition to germanization, see: Yosef Salmon, “The Precursors of Ultra-Orthodoxy in Galicia and Hungary: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Torem of Rymanow and his Disciples”, Modern Judaism 36:2 (2016): 115-143; R. Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, Sefer Ateret Menahem (Bilgoraj, 1910), Introduction (by the editor, Avraham Hayyim Michelson), 5-10; Hillel Zeitlin, Be-Pardes Ha-Hasidut (Kfar Habad: Eshel, 2018), 90-120. For a discussion of Galician Hasidism, including R. Mendel and his circle, in its early-19th century context, see Raphael Mahler, “Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment,” in: G. Hundert (ed.), Essential Papers on Hasidism (New York: NYU Press, 1991), 401-419. The legend about R. Mendel and Mendelssohn appears in: SY Agnon, Takhrikh shel Sippurim: Sippurim shel Ashkenaz Ve-agafeha (Jerusalem: 2001), 158-9.

[3] It is admittedly difficult to understand how the Hasidic Rebbe who uttered these words could be the inspiration for The Rebbe’s Choice Zesty Matjes Herring.

Elli Fischer
Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, and editor. He is editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English and cofounder of HaMapah, an project that applies quantitative analysis to rabbinic literature. He is a founding editor of The Lehrhaus, and his writing has appeared in numerous Jewish publications. Among the issues he writes about are religion and politics in Israel; the interplay between legal and nonlegal elements of the Talmud; Jewish religious culture; and Central European Jewish History. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds degrees from Yeshiva University, rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. Originally from Baltimore, he currently resides in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and four children.