In Egypt, the most important element of the seventh day had been the cessation of labor; the spiritual and theological experience of emulating God and giving testament to His act of Creation was arguably eclipsed by the sheer relief from excruciating physical labor.
The road from Egypt to Mount Sinai was not an easy one. The difficulty was not only due to the nature of the terrain the Israelites had to cross, or even the fact that their former masters pursued them in a murderous frenzy; the basic logistics of the care and feeding of such a large populace proved to be a formidable challenge. Having Divine logistical support proved quite advantageous, as they made their way under the protective cover of clouds of glory, the sea split miraculously at their approach, and their drinking water flowed from a rock.
While all of this help was, quite literally, a Godsend, there was one type of assistance that went beyond their physical needs, providing sustenance that was spiritually transformative as well: the manna. The manna fell every morning, six days a week, with a double portion on the sixth day; on the seventh day, no manna fell. The lesson of Shabbat was “hard wired” into the food they ate, giving their most basic physical sustenance religious significance.
Although Shabbat was first introduced in the early verses of Bereishit, we have no evidence that the Divine perspective on creation to which Shabbat bears witness – that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh by ceasing to create - had somehow trickled down to human awareness or practice. Before they left Egypt, did the Jews know about the Sabbath day?
There is a rabbinic teaching (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:28) that the Israelite slaves were granted a weekly day of rest in Egypt. On the advice of an Egyptian prince named Moshe, Pharaoh instituted a six-day workweek for the empire’s slaves, as a means of increasing their productivity. It is altogether possible that no one, Egyptian or Israelite, suspected that this day of rest had religious significance, not to mention religious origins or motivation: Pharaoh would most certainly not have acquiesced to Moshe’s suggestion had he known that he was granting a religious freedom.
But what of the slaves themselves? Did they see their day of rest from the toils and tribulations of slavery in physical/social terms, or as a religious/spiritual necessity? Once freed, did they conclude that their new society had no need for a day of rest because they were no longer physical laborers? Their new reality was so completely different to the reality they had known in Egypt: Their food fell from heaven, and the “work” they had to do to access the manna only vaguely resembled standard agriculture. They “harvested” fresh produce each day without the back-breaking tilling and sowing, planting, pruning, and myriad other laborious tasks that every farmer knows so well. In fact, their food did not even grow from the ground; it came down from heaven. In a sense, there was something almost “Eden – like” about their existence. Was there a need for a day of rest in this idyllic existence, they might well have wondered?
The manna gave a clear and resounding answer: Yes, even in the desert, protected and sustained by miracles, there is Shabbat. Apparently the Shabbat experience in the desert was designed to be very different from the Shabbat they had known in the dark days of slavery. In Egypt, the most important element of the seventh day had been the cessation of labor; the spiritual and theological experience of emulating God and giving testament to His act of Creation was arguably eclipsed by the sheer relief from excruciating physical labor.
In the desert, when they are free almost entirely of physical constraints, God comes into focus. The manna is the ultimate teaching aid: The first lesson is that all food ultimately comes from God. Consider the slave mentality: They had, for hundreds of years, been building great edifices for the Egyptian empire. Despite the misery of their lives, they were able to see the tangible results of their labor, and to draw a direct correlation between effort and result. Though they did not benefit from their accomplishments, they were able to measure their progress and perhaps even take pride in what they had built. But the slave can feel alienated from God; slaves do not sense a partnership with the Almighty. On the other hand, the farmer, whose livelihood is dependent upon the cooperation of “nature,” is acutely aware of each and every one of the problems that can destroy a crop. The farmer has a far more organic sense of partnership with God, and a far more natural need to pray, to communicate with his or her “senior partner.”
In the desert, the Israelites were not farmers; they had no need to do work of any kind - and yet, they “harvested” the manna. Their sustenance would still be the result of a sort of partnership with God, and the method through which their physical needs were met served as both a respite from the years of servitude and an introduction to the new reality that awaited them in the Promised Land. The desert experience allowed them to internalize the concept of a partnership with God, and to prepare themselves for the reality that awaited them in the Land of Israel – a reality that combines physical and spiritual sustenance; a reality which taught them to look heavenward for sustenance.
Through the manna, they learned the most basic lessons: God created the universe and everything in it in six days and rested on the seventh. He alone is the source of all sustenance, both physical and spiritual, and on Shabbat, when we give testament to God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, we recharge not only our physical strength, but our spiritual resources as well.
For a more in-depth analysis see: