Talmud pages

Kiddushin 38

Matzah and manna.

As the Torah tells it, God sustained the Israelites in the desert with manna, a white, flaky substance that fell from the sky and tasted like wafers in honey (see Exodus 16). The rabbis are curious to know how long the Israelites ate the manna. Exodus 16:35 seems to provide that information: “The Israelites ate manna 40 years until they came to a settled land; they ate the manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.”

Notice the contradiction? The second half of the verse says that the Israelites stopped eating manna on the day that they reached the border of Canaan, but the first half of the verse says it happened when they reached settled land, which did not happen until some time later, as the local population did not live along the border where the Isralites crossed.

A biblical scholar might point out the poetic parallelism in this verse, i.e., that “until they came to a settled land” and “until they came to the border” are synonymous and meant to indicate the same thing — that the manna lasted until the end of the journey. This kind of parallelism is a common biblical literary device. But the Gemara, at this moment, wants precision and therefore seeks to harmonize the two halves of the verse:

How can these clauses be reconciled? Moses died on the seventh of Adar and the manna ceased falling, and they ate the manna that was left in their vessels until the 16th of Nisan.

In other words, the manna fell until they came to the border. When Moses died on the 7th of Adar, it stopped falling, but the Israelites had enough manna leftover for six more weeks, which sustained them until the 16th of Nisan, which was after they entered the land. (If you are interested in how the rabbis arrive at these dates, you can find that information on today’s daf.)

The Israelites left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan. They brought some hastily prepared bread with them and were sustained by manna starting the next day, the 16th, and ending exactly 40 years later, even though it ceased to fall some time before. That solves the timeline question.

Or does it?

But did they really eat it for 40 years? Didn’t they eat it for 40 years less 30 days? 

Exodus 16:1 tells us that it was on the 15th of Iyar — exactly a month after they departed Egypt — that the Israelites complained about being hungry and the manna did not begin to fall until the next day. So how can Exodus 16:25 say that they ate manna for forty years if it was actually 39 years and 11 months? 

A biblical scholar might point out that the number 40 in the Bible is a round number that is not meant to convey an exact amount of time. A math teacher might point out that when dealing with whole numbers, we round up — so it’s fine to say 40 years to approximate 39 years and 11 months. But the Gemara, at this moment, wants to be more precise and offers a different solution:

This verse comes to tell you that they tasted the taste of manna in the unleavened cakes that they took out from Egypt.

It’s not that they ate manna for the entire 40 years, but that what they ate for 40 years tasted like manna. And from this we learn that the matzah that the Isralites baked tasted like manna — and vice versa.

Forty years of matzah!? Most of us who tire of the bland crackers after only eight days might say “no thank you.” I’d rather have the kind of manna that Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi said tastes like anything I want it to (see Yoma 75). But maybe there’s a larger spiritual point here. That first matzah — however bland — would have also tasted of freedom. And, by extension, so did the manna eaten in the wilderness. And there is no sweeter taste than that!

Read all of Kiddushin 38 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 20th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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