Monn: An Explanation for Shmittah and Time

Imagine, if you can, existence in a world before calendars or clocks, a world in which time is marked by the natural world by the sun and the moon. Notice the passage of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the cyclical nature of the seasons themselves. And notice, too, what is missing: the unit of time we know of as a “week”.

There is nothing intuitive or obvious about a 7 day week – if we were to divide the moon’s 29.5 day cycle into weeks, then a 5 or 6 day week would neatly subdivide into 30 days, much more neatly than does a 7 day week. Indeed, plenty of other “weeks” have been tried in history; Napolean and the early Soviets both tried, and failed, to impose a shift to longer or shorter weeks.

The earliest source known to historians for a regular 7 day week is the Torah, containing the commandment by G-d to the Jewish people. And the first time Hashem mentions Shabbos to mankind is not the creation of the world, but the monn (manna) that the Jews ate in the wilderness!

16:23 …This is what the Lord has said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sabbath to the Lord …. 25 … today is a sabbath to the Lord…  26  Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.

Where does the monn come from? While in English we refer to “Manna from Heaven”, the Hebrew verb used in the Torah to describe the source of the monn is from “oleh”, to rise up. The monn was commanded from heaven, but it seems to have risen out of the earth. And from this we get the concept of Shabbos?!

The connection becomes more clear when we see the next time the earth is linked to Shabbos – in discussing the shemittah (sabbatical) year. The language of the Torah is very similar to that of the monn:

25:2 … then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. 3  Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; 4  But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.

I’d like to suggest a possibly radical notion: that the entire purpose of the sabbatical year for the land is in fact the way that we, as a nation, show hakaros hatov (appreciation) for being sustained by the land in the wilderness.  The earth fed us monn, and to keep that memory fresh we not only keep Shabbos itself, but we also give thanks to the earth for feeding us 6 days out of 7, by leaving the land alone every 7th year.

If so, then the monn is even more important than we tend to think. Instead of considering monn as “merely” the miraculous food that sustained it in the nation, we must also see the 40 years in the desert as training for the whole nation in keeping a 7 day week, complete with Shabbos. And we can’t stop there: the basic fabric of Jewish life is inextricably linked to Shabbos, which means that on every one of the 6 days of work, or the 7th day of rest, we are reliving the experience of being in the wilderness, of being connected to Hashem for our sustenance. Time itself is predicated on the monn in the desert!

Is this overstatement?

No! The word for “time” in Hebrew is most commonly given as “zman”. But the word “zman” does not appear in the 5 Books of the Torah at all. The first time “zman” is found is in Koheles, suggesting that it is a manmade word, perhaps invented by Solomon. After our experience in the desert, we felt the need for a word to describe what we had learned, a word that had not been a part of our prior national consciousness.

So what does “zman” mean? Literally, it is a combination of two parts: the letter “zayin”, and the word “monn.” Monn, of course, is manna. The letter zayin can mean a short form of “zeh”, meaning “this”. With this meaning, we see that time can be self-defined as the monn.

Alternatively, we can translate the “zayin” into its numerical value, which is 7 – the number of the week, as well as the sabbatical for the land. All biblical time is then measured in multiples of 7, because that is the unit of time that G-d taught us in the desert.

Either way, we see that the basic unit of time for our lives (7 days), as well as that for the land (7 years), are linked together to the experience we had in G-d’s sukkah in the desert. Though the blessings from G-d in the desert were explicitly supernatural, we see that both “natural” agricultural blessings, as well as the passage of time itself should never be separated from those foundational 40 years: this is the lesson of the monn.

Comments are welcome!