Why Did B’nai Yisrael Want Fish, Cucumbers, Watermelons, Leeks, Onions & Garlic?

In Parshat Behaalotcha, we are told that B’nai Yisrael were given manna to eat while they traveled in the desert.

A well known interpretation is that the manna tasted like whatever food the person who was eating it wanted it to taste like. If this was the case then why did B’nai Yisrael complain saying the following (Bamidbar 11:5): “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt; the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions and garlic?”

Rashi says that the manna was transformed into everything except for the foods listed here.

The Sifri (Midrash written around the same time as the Mishna) explains what the problem was:

Rabbi Shimon said: Why was the manna transformed into everything but these foods? It is because these foods are harmful to nursing mothers. We tell a woman: “Do not eat garlic or onions for the baby’s sake.” This is compared to a king who placed his son under the tutelage of a pedagogue who warned him against harmful food and drink. The son was angry with his father, saying that this is not because my father loves me, but because he does not want me to eat.

Throughout the centuries, different cultures had their own lists of what was and wasn’t good for nursing mothers to eat. We learn from here that in the Third Century CE nursing mothers were told to keep away from the above foods as they were afraid that they would have an adverse effect on the mother’s milk.

Is this still true today?

  1. Fish- nursing moms are told to stay away from eating large amounts of fish due to the levels of mercury that it may contain.
  2. Cucumbers- and some other vegetables are thought to make some babies irritable.
  3. Watermelon- is a fruit that helps boost the mom’s fluid intake and it is now considered an “old wives tale” to tell nursing moms that it is harmful.
  4. Leeks, Onions and Garlic- are still known to change the taste of the mother’s milk. Some babies may get fussy if the milk tastes different. According to La Leche League, in Italy nursing moms are told to stay away from garlic while in India the moms are told to eat garlic as it may actually help boost the mom’s milk supply.

Today, nursing moms are told to eat all healthy foods and to only stop eating a specific food (often one or more on the foods on the list above) if it bothers the baby.

Instead of appreciating all of the foods that the manna could have tasted like, according to this Midrash, B’nai Yisrael craved the six foods that they could not have and complained. We must learn the lesson here that we can’t always have everything and we must be thankful and appreciative for what we do have.

Eizeh hu ashir? Hasameach bichelko. Who is rich? The person who is happy with what they have.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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