Manna From the Desert and From the BookShelf

פורסם: August 15th, 2009 | עודכן: 17/01/15

The researcher of the popular Israeli TV program “The Weekly Portion of the Bible with Dov Elbaum” called me in January 2009 and suggested that I interest the general public in my findings on “manna.” I realized that my field investigations from the 1960s up to the present are the most authentic source that can be used in this field. It would be fitting for me to gather together all the developments on this subject, since 1968 up to today.

Manna on Haloxylon salicornicum – a New Source

A few months after the end of the Six Days War (in 1967), research expeditions of the Hebrew University and other scientific institutes were organized. Prof. Naftali Tadmor (“Kofish”) was the main initiator. He wished to continue the field investigations that he started following the war of 1956. Tadmor’s expedition to Gebel el Igma terminated abruptly at that time. He and his team departed Sinai after the Israeli Defense Forces had already left. The expeditions after 1967 were better organized. Following a few excursions of the botanical team we organized an excursion for the entire Department of Botany, which took place in 1968.

I remember an observation and collection stop in lower Wadi Feiran. Bilhah Nakhman showed me white drops on young green stems of [Haloxylon salicornicum] (also known as Hamadda) (Fig. 5.7.1). We asked a passing Bedouin: “What is this? He answered: “This is mann-rimth (rimth = the Bedouin name of [“Haloxylon salicornicum” H. salicornicum] in most places around the Middle East) that you ate when you left Egypt.” I took as many photos as I could (Fig. 5.7.2), and upon returning to Jerusalem I started to write my short article on the discovery of a new source of the “manna” that was eaten by our forefathers.

A search for literature led me to the article written by Shimon Bodenheimer. He participated in an expedition of the Department of Zoology, from Jerusalem to Sinai, before 1948, and in 1947 reported the finding of “manna” excreted by two species of scale insects (aphids) growing on [Tamarix nilotica] (Figs. 5.7.3-5.7.6). In the summer of 2008 I went to the Dead Sea Valley with Prof. Dan Gerling who knows the secrets of the aphids. At Enot Tzukim he showed me the Najacoccus aphid that excretes transparent drops from an ovoid body (Figs. 5.7.4-5.7.5) and the Trabutina aphid that excretes a snow-white material (Fig. 5.7.6) which is consumed by the weaving ants confined to that area.

Fig. 5.7.1: White drops rich in minute air-bubbles on Haloxylon salicornicum from the Sinai desert.

Fig. 5.7.2: A student records manna drops on Haloxylon salicornicum shrubs in Wadi Feiran, Sinai.

Fig. 5.7.3: A large gorge in S Sinai, supporting Tamarix nilotica trees; the latter are known as a host for aphids which excrete sweet fluids known as “honey-dew”.

Fig. 5.7.4: Stems of Tamarix nilotica with aphids of the genus Najacoccus. The drops are their sweet excretions. Photographed at Enot Tzukim, north-western Dead Sea area.

I wrote an article in Hebrew (1969 – the Manna our forefathers ate. Teva VeAretz 11: 222-224), believing that my discoveries must be published first in our own language. In this article, 40 years ago, I offered the zoologists an opportunity to give us the answer to the question of which insects should be held responsible for the creation of the white drops. I have not yet seen a written answer to the issue of “which insect is responsible for these drops”. A short article was printed in 1972: A sweet exudate of Hammada: another source of manna in Sinai. Economic Botany 26: 373 375. In 1972, upon termination of the organized research excursions, I participated in a “press expedition” aimed at displaying our findings to several senior journalists who were invited by the Hebrew University. I took part as a representative of the botanical team. Upon arriving at the sandy plains near Sarabit el Khadem, we saw that many of [“Haloxylon salicornicum” H. salicornicum] shrubs carried white drops of “manna”. Impressed by this sight (Fig. 5.7.1 right) I postulated that in a year with much rainfall the [“Haloxylon salicornicum” H. salicornicum] shrubs would have a strong fresh growth. A strong development of the insect may lead to extensive development of the white drops. Such an event could have been listed in the nation’s memory as a gift from heaven. In additional trips I made to the Negev and to Sinai I found similar white drops on young stems of [Anabasis setifera] (Fig. 5.7.7). The journalist-photographer Werner Braun sent an article to several international journals concerning my findings on the manna, and the information started to make its way around the world. As the years passed I gained additional information on the manna. A special event took place in S. Sinai (Fig. 5.7.8) where I saw a small herd of goats resting in the shade of an [Acacia raddiana] tree (Fig. 5.7.9). It was an area where goats had already eaten all the green or dry plants available to them. They seemed to like licking the stones under the [Acacia] tree (Fig. 5.7.10). I approached closer; the soil and stones were moist and when standing in the shade of the tree I felt minute drops “landing” on my arms and face. I found scale insects there (Fig. 5.7.11) on the stems of the “dropping” [Acacia]. I then understood the term “honey dew” and added it to the list of donors of available sweetness in the desert. When checking dry plants in herbaria in Europe I found at least two herbarium sheets where the plant collectors in Saudi Arabia noted the finding of “manna” on the plants. I have difficult today locating where I wrote the notes on those manna sites.

Fig. 5.7.5: Right photo – remnant of the aphid in a season when only remnants are found; left – as in Fig. 5.7.4.

Fig. 5.7.6: A “weaving ant” gathers a natural sweet which was excreted by the aphid Trabutina on a thin stem of Tamarix nilotica at Enot Tzukim.

Fig. 5.7.7: A white drop rich in minute air-bubbles on a young stem of Anabasis setifera.

Fig. 5.7.8: A landscape in Eastern Sinai dominated by Acacia raddiana, devoid of companion plants.

A visit and critical notes of the dew expert

At the beginning of the 1980s, while seated at my table in the herbarium of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Shmuel Duvdevani came in for a visit. He is known as a world expert on dew, as a botanist and as a teacher. He came to study various plants in the herbarium during his preparation of a manuscript for an analytical flora based on vegetative properties. We recalled my first excursion to the Negev, where I was no longer like a child going with his parents. On that excursion I was 15-16 years old. Kofish, (also known as Prof. Naftali Tadmor) who was a pupil of Dr. Duvdevani at the agricultural school at Pardes Hanna, took both of us on a research expedition he conducted near Sedeh Boqer. Dr. Duvdevani asked me in the herbarium, of my whereabouts at that time, and we understood that I had arrived at his favorite “field” – dew in the Bible. It is written that the manna arrived as dew from heaven and accumulated as a layer around the Israelite camp. Being the world expert on dew he asked me to show him “my” manna. The participants of this mini-expedition with me were Dr. S. Duvdevani and his grandson Ben Ofarim. We drove to the Dead Sea shores near Enot Tzukim (Ein Fashkha). I showed him tamarisk branches with aphids (Figs. 5.7.4-5.7.6), resembling those reported by Bodenheimer (1947) from Sinai. On our way to Masada we collected green stems of [Anabasis setifera] which had white drops similar to those on [Haloxylon salicornicum] (Fig. 5.7.7). Dr. Duvdevani looked after the new treasure carefully, and two days later I got a phone call from him. He told me that “my manna findings” are very interesting, but he declared that it is not and cannot be the “Biblical manna”. He advised me to search in old Muslim writings in order to solve the dilemma.

Fig. 5.7.9: An Acacia raddiana tree hosting a small herd of goats.

Fig. 5.7.10: Goats licking stones that became wet from aphids’ honey-dew.

Fig. 5.7.11: Scale insects (aphids) on an Acacia branch.

Fig. 5.7.12: A well known candy in the Middle East, that seems to have originated in Iraq. Its name is translated as “Mann and Quail, the Peace Sweet”.

Old books

On my way to search for books I looked through the pages of Josephus Flavius’ book “Jewish Wars” (written in the first century). The Biblical story is copied there as in the source. I opened the Hebrew translation of the Koran (written in the 6th century). The Biblical story is repeated. I went to Tel Aviv, by chance, with Avner Giladi who was working on his doctorate at Tel Aviv University at the time. When I asked him about his research he told me something I did not know to search for, and did not know whom to ask: he was studying “ancient Muslim scriptures”. Here I started to hold the end of the string that I had to roll up in order to arrive at an appropriate answer for Dr. Duvdevani, who was the only one interested in “my manna”. I have to admit, I felt a certain tension waiting for the answer. Several weeks or months later Avner informed me that he had found some comments on the manna, in dictionaries for the Koran written in the ninth century in Mesopotamia. The Koran interpreters wrote that manna is the sweet drops found on Taranjabin shrubs. Another source of information explained that Taranjabin is the local name of [Alhagi graecorum] which abounds in Israel and Sinai as well. One of the common scientific synonyms of this plant brings about the traditional relationship with the manna – Alhagi mannifera.

I have seen a chapter from a book written by one of the first European visitors to Sinai (Belon, P. 1553. Voyage au Levant) in modern times. He reports there about the manna one could get in the St. Katherine Monastery in the 16th century. At that time, the term Tereniabin was used for honey dew collected in Sinai. The term Taranjabin is the Mesopotamian term and gives a hint as to the source of this information. For me, this means that the perception that manna is the honey-dew came to Sinai from Mesopotamia with the Arabic language and the Muslim belief is not information that passed from father to son starting from the Bedouin who met the wandering Children of Israel.

Hints from neighboring countries

I talked with my neighbor in Kiryat Hayovel, Jerusalem, who was born in Kurdistan. He told me that during his childhood there he enjoyed sweets that were called “mann es samma” = Manna of Heaven. A search in literature then gave me a hint that it’s origin is honey-dew collected under trees of Quercus brantii which resembles our [“QUEITH” Tabor oak]. It grows in large quantities on the Zagros mountains at the boundary zone of Iraq-Iran. Tzvi Shuraki, who lives in Jerusalem called me and told me that he has mann of similar origin that was brought from Kurdistan in recent years. Following Elbaum’s TV program, Avner-Yaacov Yaron from Tel Aviv wrote to me: “As a native of Baghdad, living there until my departure for Israel. I remember that lumps of something sweet were brought from northern Iraq. After dissolving this in water and straining it, there remained various leaves resembling those of Cupressus. The lumps of material were named “mann of heaven” and a special candy was produced for the Jewish community there, named “mann el samma”. People from Iraq who live in Israel still produce it under this name.”

In 1996 I accompanied a trip to N. Jordan. While walking in the streets of Irbid I saw a small grocery, which looked as if it was part of the Jerusalem Market at Makhane Yehuda. Among the dozens of products displayed there, were boxes decorated with a drawing of white elliptical balls of ping-pong ball size, displayed as “mann wassalwa = manna and quail – peace sweets (Fig. 5.7.12). It is possible that such sweets, containing pistachio nuts and almonds, may be found in markets in Israel – I did not search further. I recently spoke at length to Pini Amitai, a well known “Jerusalemite”. In his childhood memories of Jerusalem, in the days before the founding of the state, there is an honored place for a ball of “mann”. This was part of the gift his grandmother used to give her grandchildren for the 15th of Shvat = the beginning of the tree-year and known as “fruits of the fifteenth”. In 1990, I attended a scientific conference that took place in Berlin. It was dedicated to botanical research in the Middle East. One of the participants was an Egyptian ecologist and we quickly became quite friendly. Our mutual friendship could be detected by the laughter that accompanied our conversations and our exchange of national and international jokes. In one of the more serious conversations we had, I brought up the issue of manna and the late use of it according to my findings. He strongly objected to the idea that the roots of the phenomenon were Jewish, claiming that the term “producing mann” is part of his language. The discussion became heated and soon stopped. I did not meet him after that conference.

A catholic professor from Chicago shameful

During the years before the era of electronic mail, I received a letter from a professor from a Catholic university in Chicago, USA. He asked for my permission to use my photo to show the manna the Israelites ate in the desert when they left Egypt. I answered him that in 1972 I indeed wrote an article declaring Haloxylon salicornicum to be a source of mann, but in my English-language book in 1983 I proved that the article from 1972 should not be used. With great nerve (“hutzpa” in Hebrew) he wrote back saying that I was correct in 1972 and made a big mistake in 1983. I am still angry with him, even today. Many of his colleagues in the Christian world were suspected of having a similar approach and did not earn my direct recognition as the result of this appalling behavior; they had to prove themselves to me before any further communication could take place.

The Weekly Portion of the Bible with Dov Elbaum

In the days preceding the meeting in Modiin (January 2009), at which we celebrated my 70 birthday, I had a few conversations with Roni Burg, the researcher of a television series in the first channel of Israel “The Weekly Portion of the Bible with Dov Elbaum”. She approached me by phone, and explained that she was investigating the possibility of fitting me into their program. I instantly asked her and myself “Why me?!” and she told me about two elements about which there was no need for me to look in any book for proof: a. in the portion of the Bible for that week “mann” is mentioned, and b. The celebration of the New Year of the trees takes place two days after the reading of this portion in synagogues.

We met for pre-program talks in the week of January 20, 2009 and our talk flowed on for two hours which passed quickly. Roni asked questions and I answered with all the mass of information I have gathered over dozens of years. I do not remember the exact flow of things, but there were moments where I thought to myself about my position in connection with the desert, the Tora, and the history of our people. I thought of an imaginary situation where I saw the children of Israel wandering in a long caravan in the desert. They have a broad background in understanding the desert around them, and I simply joined the convoy and felt great excitement. When looking at the whole event as an outsider I saw it as a personal gift for my birthday. After reading the “Portion” (Exodus 13 through 17) I decided that I would try to emphasize the date palms growing spontaneously near the springs of Eylim, and the whole story of the “mann” from the discovery in Wadi Feiran until today.

Speaking with Roni on the phone, I offered to bring a dried plant of [Salvia palaestina], which I keep as a picture in my office at home, and show its connection with the wandering Children of Israel in the desert (Exodus 25). When talking with Roni, the nature phenomena taking place in the 15th of Shvat were discussed as well. The recording day was fixed for January 26, 2009 and I kept feeling they will not like the finished “product” and that its broadcasting is not guaranteed.

Monday 26th arrived and I sat with coffee, with Dov Elbaum – a pleasant man. Talking with him started as if a continuation of many previous conversations. The recording of the program took place in the library of “Avi Hay House” near Yeshurun synagogue. A pleasant conversation took place between us in a hall heated by the strong studio lamps. At least 10 people surrounded us near the cameras and behind them. Roni Burg and Orna Zilqa represented the editorial part of the program and another lady put some pink powder on our faces to stop them shining. Dov read a section of the chapter and when he arrived at the bitter water he asked me how to improve the taste of the water.

Our conversation flowed on about two herbs used by the Bedouin in the desert for preparing “herbal tea.” We turned to the date palms and I related my enthusiastic memories from a spring in the extreme desert near A-Tor, southern Sinai, where hundreds of wild date palms grow. I smoothly included the views of my late teacher Nogah HaReuveni. His idea was that the four species used in our festival of Sukkot, are marker points on the route of the children of Israel from Egypt to the promised land of Israel. Dov Elbaum said he was happy to learn this new hypothesis on the role of the four species in the collective memory of the Jewish people. We arrived at the mann and the interviewer left the field free for me to relate rapidly and clearly about the discovery of “mann-rimth” in Wadi Feiran; mann on the tamarisk; Duvdevani; Avner, who read for me the early Islamic books with the “taranjabin,” and the distribution of the term “mann” in the Arab language in the entire Islamic world. Thus the roots of the statement “this is the manna you ate when you left Egypt” are revealed.

Dov asked about the Tabernacle’s Menorah (candlestick) and I displayed the plant in its frame. I then added information about the Cretan Apples which are said to resemble the knob and flower of the Bible. The recording of the program terminated at the planned second. Compliments began to flow from the crew on what they had learnt in that rich half an hour. The photographer was overcome with nostalgia of his military service in Sharm el Sheikh. At first I did not believe they would use my interview, but now I became sure that it would take place. The program was aired on Friday, February 6, 2009, 12th of Shvat, and many compliments began to flow from relatives and friends I had not seen for many years. The electronic mail brought me additional blessings and it really became one of the celebrations of my birthday.

As for the identity of the mann – when the RAMBAM gives his explanation for miracles in the Bible he says that their origin is in events which take place in our lives, in our present natural environment; however they took place on a greater scale and left the impression of a miracle. And all these “except for the mann.” Following my involvement in this matter, I prefer to consider the mann as a mysterious, inexplicable event, and not to fall captive to the easy solution taken by interpreters of the Koran, who tried to make “our” mann “theirs.”