The English word for museum stems from the Greek mouseion, which was a temple for the Muses, those ageless sprites of arts and science. Every year, millions of people flock to museums to gawk and (sometimes) learn. While personal collections have been around for millennia, curated collections like the ones found in modern museums began cropping up only in the last few hundred years. That said, the oldest known public museum was established by priestess/curator Enniggaldi-Nanna, in the ancient city of Ur, around 530 BCE. She arranged artifacts from various centuries and carefully labeled them in multiple languages to explain her civilization’s heritage.
The impulse to preserve things for others to see is perhaps even older than that. It is also more profound than one might think.
While the Israelites continued their meandering through the Sinai wilderness, they grumbled to Moses and Aaron about the lack of tasty and nutritious food. God promised to provide them with heavenly fare-pheasant and manna-that they could consume until sated. The manna was miraculous: it appeared each morning, dissipated by evening, rotted if kept overnight except on Shabbat, and tasted wonderful (see Exodus 16:1-31).
As the people became accustomed to gathering and eating this unusual food, Moses relayed this command from Adonai:
“Let oneof it be kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness when I brought you out from the land of Egypt.” And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar (tsintsenet), put one omer of manna in it, and place it before Adonai, to be kept throughout the ages.” As Adonai had commanded Moses, Aaron placed it before the Ark, to be kept. (Exodus 16:32-34)
What was that jar? When was it made? What was its purpose? What happened to it?
That word for jar (tsintsenet) appears just once in the Bible. This mysterious word allows commentators to imagine what it might mean. Some, like Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an early translation of the Bible into Aramaic, and Rashi, think the jar is made of clay. The Septuagint, the earliest translation of the Bible into Greek, insists that it is made of gold. The medieval midrash Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (at Exodus 16:33), humbly admits: “I would not know what it is – whether of silver, or iron, or lead, or copper, or tin.” Ibn Ezra wavers between clay and copper. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bahya argues that Moses figured out that the tsintsenet should keep things cool (tsonen) to preserve its contents; thus, it must be a clay vessel. The proof of this is that Jeremiah 32:14 also places important documents into a clay vessel “so that they may last a long time.” Curiously, Bahya immediately notes that we preserve wine in a similar fashion.
We can solve this mystery by recalling the jar’s purpose. It is to be “kept throughout the ages, in order that they may see the bread…” Since the people are to see the contents of the tsintsenet, it must be translucent. The Mekhilta uses this logic to conclude that the jar is made from a material that is also used to make glass.
When was this jar for manna made? Some rabbis assert that the manna itself was created at twilight before the first Sabbath of the world (Pirkei Avot 5.6); others think it emerged on the second day of creation (Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer 3.6). If that’s the case for manna, what about the jar itself? According to Rabbeinu Bahya and Midrash Lekach Tov, it was also created at twilight before the first sabbath.
What happened to this preternatural vessel containing one omer (an ancient Hebrew measure of grain that amounts to about 3.6 liters) of manna? Maimonides argues that the jar was placed next to Aaron’s staff before the Ark in the First Temple. Yet Solomon foresaw that his Temple would be destroyed, so he created a hidden cache below ground for the Ark and its accompanying sacred items, including the jar of manna ( Beit HaBechirah 4.1). The Talmud teaches that King Josiah interred them in that secret place lest they be sent into exile (Yoma 52b).
Some rabbis think it was dug up and sent to Babylon, though this is disputed (Yoma 53b). Others contend that it was sealed under the Chamber of the Woodshed in the Temple compound. Either way, the location of the Ark and the jar of manna remains a secret (Shekalim 61.4). In sum, the purpose of this unique, earthy, divinely crafted, vessel is to serve both as a preserving container for divinely created stuff, and as a display visible for all time (though sometimes hidden from view) of God’s incredible hospitality and presence while liberating an enslaved people.
In a profound way, the tsintsenet is like our lives. Each of us has been given a unique vessel or body that is simultaneously stiff and malleable, opaque and translucent. We display God’s wonders “throughout the generations.” The life we live is our chance to exhibit solidarity with the vulnerable, much as God did. We get to place this lifelong effort before God alongside the Ark and its broken tablets. We each are a tsintsenet for our generations.
When Moses says, “Take a jar, put one omer of manna in it, and place it before Adonai, to be kept throughout the ages”-he speaks not of some dusty item in a museum that you may or may not visit; Moses speaks of you.