What Was Manna from Heaven Made Of? Originally published June 1-2, 2018

In this week’s parashah (portion of the Torah) we read about manna.  It is described as a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground (hoar-frost is a greyish frozen dew), and it is also described as white coriander seed.  Manna would fall over night, and it was collected each morning (except on Shabbat, as two portions were collected on Fridays).  It was either baked or boiled, and was said to taste like wafers boiled in honey. 

According to The New Jewish Encyclopedia, 1976 edition, an expedition of the Hebrew University discovered in 1927 that a certain secretion of an insect living on the leaves of the tamarisk is similar in taste to that described in the Torah.  As reported in Time magazine in that year, Dr. Fritz Bodenheimer and Oskar Theodor in the summer observed “the little pills forming as yellow, sulphur-like drops on the tamarisk twigs.”

These little pills turned out to be from insects, particularly, it is thought, the Trabutina mannipora and Najacoccus sperpentinus (J. Leibowitz, Hebrew U., 1944), or from the cocoon of the parasitic beetle Trehala.

In fact, another source, the British Independent, in an article by John Emsley, April 21, 1996, indicates that manna was “almost certainly trehalose, a white crystalline carbohydrate made of two glucose molecules joined together.”  Trehalose manna was reported to be “highly nutritious, consisting of 30 per cent trehalose plus protein.” 

Trehalose is produced by some bacteria, fungi, plants, and lower phyla animals as a source of energy and to survive freezing and lack of water.  Insects use it to fuel flight.  It is also found in honey, bread, beer, wine, and vinegar.  Shiitake mushrooms and baker’s yeast are said to contain as much as 20 percent.  The chemical is now synthesized and used in many products.  There is a fear that its increased use has contributed to the rise in C. Diff. infections.  (Maybe that was what was wrong with Miriam?)

According to a Smithsonian article by Lisa Bramen from April 8, 2009, Bedouins on the Sinai peninsula continue to harvest and eat such manna.  A chemical analysis of the excretions found they contained a mixture of three basic sugars with pectin.

The name, by one rabbinic theory, is said to come from “man hu?” or “what is it?” based in Aramaic.

Manna is also described in this parashah as the color of bdellium, which is definitely not white; it is a brownish semitransparent oleo-gum resin that is extracted from Commiphora wightii and C. africana trees growing in that area.  Used in perfumery, bdellium is sort of a poor-man’s myrrh.  But we digress - from the question, if not from the portion.