In this week’s Torah reading, the Israelites complain about not having meat. Then they go on to reminisce about fish, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:4–5). What do they really want here? The passage continues with a description of how the manna was gathered, prepared, and eaten (11:7–8). Why is that description here, instead of in the chapter where the manna first appeared (Exodus 16)?
The Gemara, asking where the “free” fish came from, says that when the Israelites drew water, God put small fish in their buckets (Yoma 75a). Let’s assume, based on this Gemara, that when the Israelites are longing for fish, they’re longing for small fish, like anchovies. What do small fish, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic have in common?
First, they can be prepared easily: you can throw them in a pot of boiling water, and come back in an hour and have stew. Or, if you’re in a real hurry, you can eat them raw. Second, they can be preserved easily: fish and cucumbers can be pickled, and the other vegetables can just be stashed in a root cellar for months. Manna, on the other hand, took effort to prepare: it had to be ground and then baked (Numbers 11:8). It could not be preserved for even a day: on every day but Friday, leftover manna putrified the following morning (Exodus 16:20), and fresh manna appeared with the morning dew (Numbers 11:9).
When you’re a slave with no time for yourself, and food comes into your hand, the rational thing to do is fill your stomach with as little effort as possible, because the taskmaster might come back at any moment, and store whatever crumbs you don’t need, because you have no guarantee that more will come tomorrow. The Israelites in the desert had all the time they needed to prepare and enjoy the manna, but some of them had not escaped from the appetite of a slave. To such people, God sent quail, which could be cooked almost as easily as fish. The people who sought the quick gratification of roast poultry found an equally quick death: “the meat was still between their teeth when they were cut off” (Numbers 11:33).