Eat What I Say
The expression “Not by bread alone” has certainly gotten around: it is, among other things, the name of a website promoting a farmer’s market in Green Bay, Wisconsin; the title of a Russian novel by Vladimir Dudintsev published in 1956; and the name of a play recently produced by the Israeli Na-laga‘at Theater, a deaf-blind acting ensemble. It is also the name of various bakeries, restaurants, diets, ands recipe books, as well as the title of numerous sermons and inspirational writings (Jewish and Christian).
Somewhere along the way, this expression came to have a simple message: people don’t just live by the material things of life, “by bread alone,” but by the spiritual things as well, “whatever comes forth from God’s mouth.”
But it means something rather different in its original context, which is found in this week’s Torah reading, ‘Ekev. There, Moses reminds his countrymen of the hardships they have had to endure during their forty years of wandering about in the wilderness.
Remember the long journey on which the Lord your God has led you these last forty years in the wilderness, for the purpose of afflicting you and putting you to the test, in order to find out what was in your hearts, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He afflicted you and made you go hungry, then fed you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, in order to teach you that a person does not live only by bread, but by whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.
In context, what Moses is describing is the suffering the Israelites had to endure over the previous forty years. Manna, which is sometimes presented quite positively in the Bible, here is rather the opposite. It was this strange food that people had to eat or else starve: “He afflicted you, and made you go hungry, and He fed you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known.” The lesson that the Israelites were to derive from this was (to paraphrase slightly): “Bread is not the only food by which a person can live; a person can survive on whatever food God says.”
There’s nothing particularly spiritual about manna in the passage cited above. It was that same “low-grade food” that the Israelites are said to have grown tired of in Num 21:5; God made His people eat it, our passages says, as a way of testing them, “in order to find out what was in your hearts, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” So how did “Not by bread alone…” come to mean “not merely by material things, but by spiritual things as well”?
This “spiritual” reading of the expression owes a great deal to the way manna is described in a few other passages in the Bible. It is described as “bread from heaven” in Exod 16:4 and Ps 105:40, and “bread of the mighty” in Ps 78:25. These certainly sounded as if manna was something good; when the latter verse was translated into Greek in the Septuagint Bible, it came out as “the bread of angels,” which made it sound even better. What is more, ancient tradition held that angels don’t eat or drink at all, so the “bread of angels” must have meant something spiritual.
Then, there was the apparent contradiction within the Bible concerning manna’s taste. According to Exod 26:31, manna was “like coriander seed, white, but the taste of it was like wafers mixed with honey.” But according to Num 11:8, its taste was more like “rich cream.” Which was right? An ancient midrash suggests that both descriptions are correct, because “We can taste in it the taste of bread, the taste of meat, the taste of fish, the taste of locusts, the taste of all the delicacies in the world” (Mekhilta deR. Ishmael, Amaleq).
Manna was thus well on its way to becoming an altogether spiritual food that came forth “from the “mouth of the Lord.” In fact, according to another tradition cited in the Mekhilta deR. Ishmael, God said: “I will send them around the desert for forty years, so that they will eat manna…and thus the Torah will be incorporated into their bodies” (Vayhi 1). In other words, this physical substance will be transformed into something spiritual once it is eaten.
It thus seems that the phrase “whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord” changed its meaning from “whatever God decides” to “the spiritual things [like the Torah] that come forth from God’s mouth.” This radical make-over brought the phrase “not by bread alone” along with it; thanks to ancient biblical interpreters, it now meant, “not by material things alone.” As students of biblical interpretation know, similar transformations changed the meaning of numerous other verses; in fact, our Torah would be something quite different without them.