Manna Is Real and Not So Heavenly

January, 28 2019

It was 1968, just a few months after the end of the Six-Day War, when Avinoam Danin, the late professor of botany, embarked on an expedition to the Sinai Desert, the historic land recently taken by Israel from Egypt. Danin and his colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem noticed white drops on the green stem of a desert shrub. The plant, Haloxylon salicornicum, is found all over the Middle East. “We asked a passing Bedouin: ‘What is this?’” Danin wrote many years later in an article published on the website Flora of Israel Online. The Bedouin responded: “This is mann-Rimth that you ate when you left Egypt.” The Rimth shrub is the Bedouin name for the Haloxylon salicornicum. Was this the answer, Danin wondered, to a thousands-years-old mystery about the miraculous food from heaven that sustained the people of Israel on their way to the promised land?

Manna is first mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 16 when the Israelites, wandering the Sinai Desert after leaving Egypt, begin complaining to Moses about the shortage of food. God promises Moses to “rain bread from heaven” to feed the people. “In the morning there was a layer of dew round about the camp. And when the layer of dew was gone up, behold upon the face of the wilderness a fine, scale-like thing, fine as the hoar-frost on the ground.” The Israelites asked “What is it?” or “Mann hou?” in ancient Hebrew, and that was the origin of the name manna (mann in modern Hebrew). In the same chapter, manna is described as “like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.”

Manna came with its own user manual. People were instructed to gather exactly as much as they needed every day and never to save it, as the precious food would spoil. Manna would appear six days a week, and on Friday they were instructed to gather twice as much—since there would be no manna coming down on Saturday, the day of rest. The extra portion for Shabbat, the Israelites were promised, would not spoil.

The description of manna in the Bible matches what Danin found in the Sinai Desert. He soon discovered that the white drops on the shrub’s stems were the digestive byproduct of insects that feed on the plant’s sap, known as honeydew. The secretion, formed at night, is loaded with sugar. The sweet liquid hardens to the form of white granules and is still collected from spring to early fall in many places in the Middle East today.

Manna also appears in the New Testament and the Quran. Persian medieval writings on the Quran, as well as a medicine book by the 10th-11th- century Persian scholar Al Biruni, didn’t mention Haloxylon salicornicum but say manna was the sweet drops that formed on the tamarisk tree, which is common in the Sinai Peninsula as well as in what today is Iraq and Iran. Manna from the tamarisk tree was called taranjabin (Tar-angabin) manna, which means “wet honey” in Farsi.

The Gathering of the Manna, James Tissot, 1902.

A 16th-century document written by Pierre Belon, a French traveler and naturalist, uses the same name to describe the manna he encountered at St. Catharine’s monastery in Sinai. For Danin, the modern-day Israeli researcher, this was a turning point. Learning that the term “manna” was used by medieval Iranians, and that it was carried to Sinai by a French scholar, led him to realize that the Bedouins might not have learned about manna from their ancestors who had met Moses and his flock crossing through the desert three and a half millennia ago. It was more likely that they heard the story of manna later.

But although we cannot be certain which plant produced the “bread from heaven” that the Jewish people ate on their journey, we do know that “manna” is still harvested and used in parts of Iran and Iraq. The word refers to either sweet sap of any plant (tree or bush) that appears in the region or the secretion from insects that feed on trees such as the tamarisk. Modern chefs in the United States have also begun to experiment with it. Recently, chef Todd Gray of Manna restaurant in the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC used manna imported from Iran as a delicate garnish. Still, this is rare, since sanctions on Iran make it almost impossible to import.

If you visit Iraq, you can try mann al-sama (manna from heaven, or in Arabic, from the sky), a chewy, white, nougat-like confection spiced with cardamom and mixed with nuts. Traditionally, it was prepared with manna gathered beneath the tamarisk trees, which is naturally mixed with leaves and impurities from the ground. It is cleaned by boiling and straining through a sieve and then shaped into balls. According to Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden, the time-consuming task of making mann al-sama was the specialty of Jewish confectioners in Baghdad, who called it baba kadrasi. These days, the candy is rarely made with manna but is prepared instead with a more readily available and affordable mixture of sugar and egg whites.

As for the Bible’s double portion (lechem mishneh) of manna on Friday, the one large enough to last for two days, no one has yet found a scientific explanation. It did, however, give birth to a beautiful Jewish tradition, which first appeared in the Babylonian Talmud, of reciting the Hamotzi blessing over two challah loaves on Shabbat.



In her 2003 cookbook Delights from the Garden of Eden, Nawal Nasrallah quotes a recipe she found in a 1950s cookbook for a nougat-like candy called natif using manna as the main ingredient. The recipe, meant for professional candy makers, assumes readers have collected the manna themselves and instructs them on how to clean out the dirt and twigs. The recipe is interesting to read, but nearly impossible to follow.


12 pounds manna
100 eggs
3 pounds almonds
Toasted flour as needed
Confectioners sugar

1. Soak the manna in hot water overnight to help it dissolve. Strain it through fine cheesecloth and then put it on low heat, in a very big pot.

2. Add 25 eggs and stir. The mixture will be clear in about 30-45 minutes. Strain it again. All the soil and dirt will be removed with the help of the coagulated eggs.

3. Return manna to heat, bring it to a boil, and then add the whites of the remaining 75 eggs. Stir constantly over low heat until manna becomes a light-colored paste, five to six hours. It is ready when the spoon is lifted from the pan and the manna adhering to it breaks off. Immediately fold in the toasted almonds.

4. When the manna is cool enough to handle, form it into flat cakes or balls about two-inches in diameter. Roll each piece in flour.

5. When completely cooled off, layer the pieces in tins or small wooden boxes with plenty of confectioners sugar between the pieces.

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19 thoughts on “Manna Is Real and Not So Heavenly

  1. Davida Brown says:

    The problem with this whole article is due to the Biblical fact that God stopped sending the manna the day after the Israelites began their new life in the promised land. Why is it that a scientific reason has to be found for every miracle of the God of Israel? It is disbelief, an age-old problem for the people of Israel! Isn’t it time to turn back from this? The reference is Joshua 5:12:”The manna ceased on the day after they had eaten some of the produce of the land, so that the sons of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate some of the yield of the land of Canaan during the year.” Fear God and believe His Word…be the LIGHT He called you to be. Our planet depends on it!

    1. Alicia C Simpson says:

      We must remember that the Bible was inspired by God but written by humans. In some places we find stories that were originally written centuries or even millennia before the Bible was recorded (they were oral traditions) and God inspired humans to include those stories because their inclusion revealed something about God.

      The miracle was not the existence of Manna, but the sheer, impossible amount of Manna that was made available.

      1. Mary Castillo says:

        Where can I order manna

    2. Tara says:

      Many times Biblical truths are matched with scientific truth. It doesn’t make the Bible any less than.

      Manna for example, could very likely be this substance and the absence of it after eating the produce occurred because the left the area Manna was present. Also Manna is seasonal in many areas so could also explain it.

      God created the universe and created all biology within it. So it would make sense and not be unbiblical to say God used a biological process he created to feed the Israelites in their trek through the desert.

    3. Yoongi says:

      I agree I am a Christian and I read the Bible a lot and I read this in disbelief Joshua 5:12 says “Then the manna stopped on the day following when they had eaten some of the produce of the land; there was no longer manna for the Israelites, but they began to eat the produce of the land of Caʹnaan in that year” please be the light in the world that we need of obviously you wrote this being a Christian so please do more research and if you are interested read more hear

    4. Julia S says:

      I was just reading Joshua 5 today and I agree! The manna stopped. This plant may be similar in texture and named after manna because it reminds the Jews of the manna that they ate. But they ate bread from heaven, not insect byproduct.

  2. victor says:

    Agree with Davida on that completely. You have to also think about the number of people that were there. 2 million plus men, women and children! Secretion from insects wouldn’t suffice. If that was the case, it would have been documented.
    another question, why was it not there, then all of a sudden overnight it was present and more than enough for all 2 million? How did it follow them all the way to Canaan and then stop once they reached there and the 40 years were up? It’s a miracle from God and should be ascribed to His glory.

    1. Alicia C Simpson says:

      Actually, scholars have misunderstood the numbers specified in Exodus. There could not have been more than about 500,000 to 600,000 Israelites, which, if interpreted and translated correctly is the number that is provided in the Biblical text.

      It would have taken days for 2 to 3 million people to cross the Red Sea.

      1. Victor Dovid Smith says:

        Reed Sea, not Red Sea. Red sea is a mistranslation.

        1. Travis says:

          Thank you Victor! I try and correct this error whenever I speak about Exodus. It seems like even some biblical scholars are engrained with the Red Sea translation, many of them won’t even entertain the mistranslation even though it’s fairly obvious. I genuinely appreciate your contribution <3

  3. victor says:

    What you described above might seem like manna in its description, but it’s not it. Interesting topic though.

    1. Alicia C Simpson says:

      …and you know this how??

  4. David says:

    Agree with top.3…and the article contradicts itself saying it was on the tree collected but verses say on the ground

    1. Tara says:

      If you read about manna (this manna) outside of this article you would find that it does actually fall to the ground.

      The insect manna falls to the ground where it is collected still today. Also it matches up with the Exodus story because it also goes away mid day. As soon as the sun hits it, it evaporates.

      So this matches perfectly the Exodus story. God created all, including all biological processes that create manna today.

      The miracle would have been A) God all knowing sending them through the portions of the desert that have manna (not all do), B) miraculously ensuring enough insects each Friday to produce enough manna for two days, C) providing a way for the manna not to evaporate on Sabbath.

      This very well could be the biblical manna, but it doesn’t take away from the miracles present. It can be both.

  5. David says:

    And even if it had been from a tree made of insects the fact that it rotted next day but on Sabbath lasted 2 days would have been a miracle and wouldn’t have had a scientific explanation either way…let alone all the rest of the miracles in the old testament

    1. Alicia C Simpson says:

      Yes, there were two miracles associated with Manna. The first was, as you indicated, the fact that the Manna collected on Friday morning was still good on Saturday. The other miracle was the sheer amount, an impossible amount, of Manna, not the existence of Manna itself.

      God took an available foodstuff and multiplied it 1,000 fold (as Jesus did twice with bread and fish).

    2. Mercy says:

      There’s one thing we are forgetting here, does this manna described above stink and breeds worms when left a night?

  6. aletha jones says:

    Aletha jones6:17 pmmanna was food for the Israelites and one of the items in the ark of the covenant and also another item was Aaron rod and also the tablet

    1. Brycen A. says:

      This website has helped so much!

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