The Quail


Moshe Ben-Chaim




In Numbers, 11:4, we read that the mixed multitude that attached themselves to the Jewish Exodus, committed a sin when they lusted. They cried out, “who will feed us meat?” Even the Jews joined them. They cried, “we remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free”, and they recalled other delicacies. In passage 6 they state, “And now our souls are dried, all we see is the manna.” Interesting are the following, detailed, positive qualities of the manna. Rashi states this description is God’s, contrasting the previous complaint of the people. The account continues with a description of Moshe hearing the people “crying by the household”. Rashi states they were crying for the matters of “households”, referring to the newly received (Torah) sexual prohibitions of family members. There are many facets to this story. I will focus on how God addresses their cry for meat.


In passage 11:13, Moshe says:

“Where shall I get meat to give to this entire people that cry upon me, saying, give us meat that we may eat?”

God says:

(18) “Ready yourselves tomorrow, and you will eat meat, because you cry in the ears of God saying, ‘who will feed us meat, because it was better for us in Egypt’, God will give you meat and you will eat. (19) Not one day will you eat, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days. (20) Until thirty days, until it comes out of your noses, and it be a vile thing, on account that you despised God Who was in your midst and you cried before Him saying ‘why have we come out of Egypt.” (21) Moshe responds:”600,000 by foot that I am amidst, and You say ‘I will give meat to them and they will eat 30 days?’. (22) If the sheep and cattle be slaughtered, would there be found sufficient? If all the fish of the sea be gathered, would there be sufficient?”


What an amazing response Moshe uttered! God says, “God will give you meat and you will eat”...”Until thirty days”, and Moshe questions this? Didn’t Moshe see God’s miracles first hand? In light of God’s abilities displayed via the Ten Plagues, what can possibly be questionable to Moshe regarding God’s promise to provide meat for thirty days? God’s response to Moshe emphasizes this point, “Is God’s hand short? You will see if this occurs.” This rare type of response requires understanding.


Let us list the questions:

1) What is meant by “Who” will feed us meat?

2) What was the Jews’ complaint? Why mock the manna, if in reality it was good?

3) Why respond to their request and feed them quail, as they seem to be in the wrong?

4) What is meant that they ate fish “free”? Rashi says (11:5) “even straw was not given to them free, how then fish?”

5) What is the purpose of “Until the quail exits your noses”? Who is making it come out of their nostrils?

6) Rashi (11:10) on “crying by the household” states “they cried concerning the sexual prohibitions on family members.” How does this relate to our story?

7) On “K’misson’nim” Rashi (11:2) states “they were seeking a pretense to escape from following God.” The question is why did they need to escape, and why at this time?

8) What is Moshe’s argument about the cattle and fish being insufficient?

9) What is God’s response to Moshe, “Hayad Hashem tiksar”, “Is God’s hand short”?


As a first step to answering these questions, I will note that many times we remain ignorant of truths due to our own, incorrect assumptions. We must be sensitive, not to overlook, assume, or project. We must focus on the Torah’s words, which are an exact science. The Torah’s words lead us to the questions, and those very same words also answer those very issues. This idea is derived from these verses stated by King Solomon:

“If you dig for it like silver, and search it out like a buried treasure, then you will understand the fear of God, and the knowledge of God will you find. Because God gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs, 2:4-6).


What is meant by the two statements in this passage, “Because God gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding”? It teaches a fine point - two reasons Torah will yield great insights into truths:

1) “God gives wisdom”, meaning, the Source of our studies is God - an infinitely wise Creator. This is one reason why we must dig for knowledge with such vigor. Our outlook must be, “there is tremendous knowledge to behold”. A sense of adventure must overcome us as we part from daily affairs and step into the endless sea of enlightening thought and ideas. This sense must present itself when each day, we embark upon new studies.

2) The second idea derived from this passage; not only is the Source of wisdom remarkable, but the actual structure of each passage is a great study in itself. This is what is meant by “from His mouth...”, meaning, God’s articulated words and verses are of the utmost precision. Only a refined sensitivity will drive a Torah student to examine the Torah with such exactitude, thereby uncovering deeper ideas. Let us return to the topic.


What did the Jews say? “Who” will feed us meat. Why was this joined with a ridicule of the manna? The first idea we notice is the Jews’ degradation of God. They saw all the miracles, and yet said, “Who will give is meat?” Another later passage alerts us that they addressed God with this statement of “Who”. Passage 11:20 reads, “(God said)...on account that you despised God Who was in your midst and you cried before Him saying ‘why have we come out of Egypt.” Here, God identifies their crime as an act of degrading God. But why were they despising Him now? They recalled the “free” fish eaten in Egypt, which Rashi denies was factual. Rashi is teaching us that they meant free in another sense, that is, free from Mitzvos. A picture starts to emerge. We begin to witness not only an attack on God, but on the Torah system.


The core issue borne out is the Jews’ aversion to the Torah - a new, binding, and prohibitive demand on their formerly “free” lifestyle, albeit as slaves. They remembered (imagined) the fish they ate “free”. Yes, “free” of commandments. The Jews rebelled against the Giver of this Torah, but they could not do so directly, as they only said, “Who” would give us meat. Therefore God clearly identifies for the Jews, that it was God who they despised.


Why did they attack the manna? The answer is “displacement”. When someone cannot vent his emotion towards the real object, he attacks an associated replacement. Such was the case with the ridicule of the manna. The Jews disliked the Torah system, but their eyes saw the event at Sinai, and they could not deny reality - the Torah is true, God is real. Therefore, they selected that which represented God’s system, the manna, which He provided miraculously. They attacked manna, instead of the commands, as they could not deny the reality of Torah. They said, “we want meat”, meaning, we don’t want this manna. In truth, they had no problem with the manna. The passages teach us how great it was. (Perhaps this is why the Torah interrupts the story with verses 11:7-9 describing how good the manna really was.) What the Jews meant to say is “we don’t want the Torah”. This is what Rashi again alludes to when he explains, “crying by the household”. Rashi stated they were “crying about the matters of the household”, they wished to once again have relations with those now prohibited by Torah law. Rashi (11:2) states, “they were seeking a pretense to escape from following God.”


Let’s also be mindful of a strange statement. Moshe said that if all the sheep, cattle, and fish were supplied to the Jews, they wouldn’t be sufficient. This is impossible! There were only 2-3 million Jews, and the entire oceanic population most assuredly would feed them forever! How can Moshe say this? Examine God’s resolve: God says He will comply with the Jews’ request, and provide quail for 30 days, until it exits their nostrils. Why comply? The Jews’ were in error. God said so, “you despised God Who was in your midst.” I ask you, the reader, to now stop, and think about this following question: What reason can there be for compliance with an ill request? Imagine you are faced with such a scenario, would you comply with a poor or sinful request? What grounds would there be for compliance? (Keep in mind, compliance means you prefer another recourse.) Don’t read further, think for a moment.


What are the possibilities? Either there are, or there aren’t alternatives. If there are none, one may comply because he has no other alternative, or cannot think of one right now. However, these explanations cannot apply to God. If there are alternatives, compliance is not needed. But there is one reason compliance may be engaged...not so much to give the person his request, but perhaps for an ulterior motive.


God in no way intended that the quail satisfy the Jews’ desire for meat, as an end in itself. Moshe too understood that the issue was not a problem with food. In his wisdom, Moshe knew they were rebelling against God. This is what caused Moshe to respond to God’s promise of quail as he did. Moshe did not doubt that God could provide any amount of food. What Moshe meant was, “food is not the answer”. Moshe knew the oceans contained enough - enough that is, if food is the issue. But the oceans cannot be sufficient if the problem is a rebellion against God. Moshe was asking of God, “food is not the issue, so why give them quail?”


What God in fact was doing, was complying for an ulterior purpose. That is, that the Jews should see for themselves that their complaint for meat is a misdirected attack on God. The only way for them to realize this is looking past their lust for meat. Only after they realize their attachment to meat is an unnatural one, will they be able to stop, reflect, and recognize their problem is truly with God, and the Torah they wish to abandon. This is why God says the quail will exit their nostrils. Not that God is the cause of this, but that their own unnatural desire for meat would propel them into an eating frenzy, until they cause the food to exit their nostrils. As they would feed, their real, underlying emotion would not be satisfied, that being the removal of their new, Torah obligations. They would then keep eating under the false impression that meat is the issue. This was God’s plan. To move them past their blinding emotion that meat is their problem. Sforno actually says this: (11:23) “Is God’s hand incapable of finding a method for them to despise all foods?” “They will eat the meat with their own free will, even after the enjoyment is gone, until it exists their nostrils, and they will despise it without any control on their free will at all, and thereby they will repent with a repentance of love...” God saw that the only way to show the Jews their true mistake was to first show them that their assumed complaint was baseless.


Moshe said to God, “600,000 by foot that I am amidst, and You say ‘I will give meat to them and they will eat 30 days?’ If the sheep and cattle be slaughtered, would there be found sufficient? If all the fish of the sea be gathered, would there be sufficient?” God responds, “Is the hand of God short?” What was Moshe’s mistake, which demanded this response? It would seem that Moshe was not of the opinion that the method of addressing the Jews’ error was to satisfy the displaced emotion. Moshe felt that the method must be to address the true, underlying emotion - their wish to abandon the commandments. Why didn’t God choose this approach? We may suggest that an open attack on the true emotion would end in the Jews’ further denial.


I tread in deep waters here, I may err, but yet I wonder, what was Moshe’s equation? Did he not see this point, that there are times when a direct assault on an emotion will not be fruitful? Did Moshe feel this case was different than all others? That an open attack on the very emotion to abandon God would be fatal? This point requires further study.