Shemot Sixteen: Shabbat in the Wilderness

Having complained and gotten their own way at Marah, the people continue on their travels and go to Elim, and then to Sinai. Now, the complaining streak continues. “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into the wilderness, to kill the whole congregation with hunger (Exodus 16:3).” Thirst having been taken care of, we’re now on to complaints of hunger. Once again, God listens to the people, and tells Moses that He will cause manna to rain down from heaven.

The people are instructed to gather enough for their use each day, and a double portion on Shabbat. On all the other days, if the people gathered more than their daily amount, it would rot overnight. However, the Shabbat portion stayed fresh for two days. This is where we derive the tradition of having two challahs on the table on Shabbat, as a representation of the two portions of manna that the people enjoyed in the desert.

Although the people were getting their way once again, this time it came with a rebuke. “And Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel: ‘In the evening, then you will know that he Lord has brought you out from the land of Egypt; and tin the morning, then you will see the glory of the Lord; for He has heard your murmurings against the Lord; and what are we, that you murmur against us (Exodus 16:6-7)?'”

The people eat quail meat in the evening, and manna in the morning. However, they don’t listen to the instructions about only gathering enough manna for daily use. “They did not listen to Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and rotted; and Moses was angry with them (Exodus 16:20).” I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for a leader to deliver explicit instructions, from God no less, and to have them ignored and thwarted at every turn. I personally would be screaming at this point, asking the people how they could keep complaining and messing up when they were told exactly what to do. But Moses is far more patient than I am, which probably explains why he’s the leader.

The people experience Shabbat in the wilderness; something that they didn’t have as slaves in Egypt. “See that the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:29-30).” This is (to the best of my knowledge) the first recorded observation of Shabbat in Tanakh. It’s fitting that this happens after the Exodus, because people without control over their own time can’t choose when to rest. Now, however, they are commanded to rest, just as God does, on Shabbat. Resting from the wandering was probably a tremendous luxury, and I can imagine the people looking forward to the seventh day and preparing the food for two days instead of one, just as we do today.

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