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The Talmud in Bechoros 5b says that "When the Jewish people left Egypt, there wasn’t a single Jew who didn’t have [at least] ninety donkies laden with silver and gold from Egypt"

I assume there was not enough vegetation in the desert to feed all the animals the Jews had brought to carry their stuff, and also that whatever animal food they took from Egypt would not last forty years. If so, what were the animals fed and where did the Jewish people get it?

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    Why do you assume that?
    – Seth J
    May 27, 2013 at 14:49
  • 1
    i assume desert does not have sufficient vegetation. and also that whatever animal food they took from egypt would not last 40 years
    – ray
    May 27, 2013 at 17:22

6 Answers 6

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The Yalqut Reubeni (here, s.v. מה) addresses this question and quotes from a collection ‘Sode Raza’ (attributed to student(s) of R. Yehudah HaChasid) that the layer of dew would bring forth vegetables for the animals.

enter image description here

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  • It's להם ירקות,vegetables ,not לחם.
    – sam
    Jan 20, 2019 at 3:41
  • @sam I didn’t assume it said לחם since לחם ירקות doesn’t sense. I just assume ירקות is לאו דוקא.
    – Oliver
    Jan 20, 2019 at 3:54
  • I would think it is davaka since it only says vegetables, so writing vegetables is more logical than writing grain
    – sam
    Jan 20, 2019 at 3:59
  • @sam For one, the source isn’t a piece of Torah or Chazal that I’d necessarily hold to a critical reading. But secondly, I don’t think “בהמות” generally feed on vegetables (and therefore not any less logical since I don’t think it is davka). Lastly, I also assume full vegetables would take much longer to grow than fodder. (Btw, thanks for the picture.)
    – Oliver
    Jan 20, 2019 at 4:07
  • I don't know why you are being so insistent on keeping it as grain since its not being true to the actual text,anyone who would read that ,would translate it as vegetables ,as per your comment about it not being Chazal I agree,but what is written should be represented as written. Beheimos are herbivorous and eat plants,as well as eating grain so it is plausible ,and woth regards to growing too slow the source is more mystical so that can easily be answered by saying it was miraculous,anyhow +1 for a good answer
    – sam
    Jan 20, 2019 at 4:13
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Rashi to Shemot 16:21 (quoting Mechilta here) says:

and [when] the sun grew hot, it melted: What remained [of the manna] in the field melted and became streams from which deer and gazelles drank. And the nations of the world would hunt some of them [these animals] and taste in them the flavor of manna and know how great Israel’s praise was. — [from Mechilta]

It is possible that this is what the domesticated animals of the Jews drank as well, although I don't know if that itself would have been enough to sustain them, without food.

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Moshe Rabbeinu, while he was grazing Yisro's flock, came to the area of Mt. Sinai, which shows that there was plenty of grazing fields out there in the wilderness (source pasted below). The word "midbar" does not necessarily mean dry like the Sahara, it just means an area that is not settled, a "wilderness," but it could still have lots of grassy hills and fields.

Shemos ch. 3 וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ וְזֶה־לְּךָ֣ הָא֔וֹת כִּ֥י אָנֹכִ֖י שְׁלַחְתִּ֑יךָ בְּהוֹצִֽיאֲךָ֤ אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם תַּֽעַבְדוּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים עַ֖ל הָהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃

And He said, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.”

Rashi ad loc (see the text in bold):

רש"י על שמות פרק ג פסוק יב ויאמר כי אהיה עמך - השיבו על ראשון ראשון ועל אחרון אחרון שאמרת מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה לא שלך היא כי אם משלי כי אהיה עמך וזה המראה אשר ראית בסנה לך האות כי אנכי שלחתיך ותצליח בשליחותי וכדאי אני להציל כאשר ראית הסנה עושה שליחותי ואיננו אוכל כך תלך בשליחותי ואינך ניזוק. וששאלת מה זכות יש לישראל שיצאו ממצרים דבר גדול יש לי על הוצאה זו שהרי עתידים לקבל התורה על ההר הזה לסוף ג' חדשים שיצאו ממצרים.

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  • Did you visit the area lately? No, it does not have any vegetation.
    – Al Berko
    Aug 2, 2019 at 13:24
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It's possible that the livestock, as well as the people, fed on manna.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Arnie Finley, and thanks for your suggestion, which would be much more valuable if you'd provide support for it, or for the likelihood of such a thing.
    – msh210
    May 27, 2013 at 16:12
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    The verse says they got 1 Omer of manna per head. Are you suggesting this included animals heads, or that people with more animals had less manna to eat for themselves?
    – Double AA
    May 28, 2013 at 3:43
  • @DoubleAA: see judaism.stackexchange.com/a/29874/603
    – Menachem
    Jul 14, 2013 at 2:04
  • The verse doesn’t say there was only an Omer per head it says they should take an Omer per head, and it continues saying that some took more, some less. There was an abundance of man and whatever was taken was enough to satisfy a persons needs. May 31 at 19:11
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Setting aside whether that Talmudic statement ought be understood literally, the natural question of how their animals were fed stands. The Israelites encamped at various settlements throughout the 40 years, some sites were rather fertile (for example Elim had "twelve wells of water and seventy date palms"). They engaged in nomadic pastoralism moving from location to location and presumably had to engage in political negotiations with other tribal entities in order to ensure access for their livestock to resources. One surmises that certain tribal nations (Amalek, Midian, Moab, etc.) felt sufficiently threatened by the Israelites such that they felt it necessary to wage war against them and attempt to eliminate them altogether (for an example of failed negotiations for safe passage in Numbers 20).

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  • How does this answer the question of what the animals ate? Are you saying that they'd go to a place, eat all the food, and then move on, fighting for grazing rights as necessary? Jul 11, 2013 at 22:17
  • @MonicaCellio I believe this is primarily addressing the premise that there was nothing for the animals to eat since it was a midbar. They were always/usually around civilization, some of which the Torah specifically mentions had edible/potable resources. "Setting aside..." implies that Deuteronomy assumes the question to be one of food's existence, not its quantity.
    – WAF
    Dec 15, 2016 at 13:02
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Sometimes the simplest answer is the truth, that the donkeys did not have enough to drink. I found this drash by Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl:

Following the crossing of the sea, the narrative records,

"They went for a three-day period in the Wilderness, but they did not find water" (Shemos 15:22).

Three days without water in the middle of the desert! And remember it was the end of Nissan which is a period of immense heat. I still do not know how they did it, perhaps Hashem performed some sort of miracle, or they may have had a limited quantity of water that was able to sustain them for the three-day period. Finally they discover water, only to realize that it is too bitter to drink (see ibid. 23). Perhaps the men would somehow be able to withstand it, but what about the women and children - can we expect a father to ignore the cries of his young ones? Perhaps one can explain to an older child that he must have bitachon, what about the smaller ones? There were not only children to deal with, but there were countless animals as well: "and flock and cattle, very much livestock" (Shemos 12:38). We do not know the total number of animals, what we do know is: "there was not a Jewish person who did not possess ninety Libyan donkeys laden with the silver and gold of Egypt" (Bechoros 5b). If each of the six hundred thousand people had ninety donkeys, there were fifty-four million donkeys in total!! Can we begin to imagine all fifty-four million thirsty donkeys braying simultaneously: "ee aw, ee aw"?

The noise alone could drive you out of your mind! Topped by the lack of water their screams must have been intolerable. Rabenu Bechaye describes this succinctly: "their journey in this great and awesome desert with their wives and children and their going for three days without water. After three grueling days they finally spot water from a distance only to discover as they approached the water that it was unfit to drink: 'they came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because they were bitter." (Shemos 15:23). How could they not have given up? How could they keep from going out of their minds? Is it any wonder that "the people complained against Moshe saying: 'what shall we drink?"

By all accounts this was an awesome test for Klal Yisrael. Chazal, however, criticize their reaction. They regard this as one of the ten times they tested Hashem in the desert (See Erchin 15a). Why? If a person is dying of thirst should he not ask for water? They did not protest to Moshe "why is it that you have brought us up from Egypt" (Bamidbar 20:5) as we find in other situations. There is nothing wrong with asking for water, but the way to do it is to either turn to Hashem or to ask Moshe to pray on their behalf, not as the parsha records: "the people complained against Moshe saying 'what shall we drink' (Shemos 15:24) ". That was the act deserving of reproach it was there that they tested Hashem. Even in such a desperate situation we must not lose perspective. Hashem does not lack for ways with which to save His nation.

Shortly thereafter in Refidim, He created a spring for them, followed by the well of Miriam at a later stage. Had Hashem wished, He could already have created Miriam's well in Mara. We can understand the braying of the donkeys, after all they are only donkeys but the people should not have acted like donkeys! The proper response would have been to pray to Hashem and to have enough bitachon that whatever He does is for the good. Perhaps a miracle would have occurred and water would have appeared or they would have been able to survive without water, or Hashem would have transported them on eagle's wings to an area containing water. Hashem does not lack for ideas on how to provide miracles. Even if it had been decreed that they all die in the desert this too must be viewed as being for the best. The same may be said regarding the other trials and tribulations they experienced in the desert the chet haegel, the meraglim, and more. They should have spoken to Moshe or prayed using a different "melody". Their question of "what should we drink" should have been sung in a Yom Tov tune, not one fitting for Tisha B'Av. It is for this that Chazal criticize them.

There is a story told of a Jew who received a letter from his son who was in a distant country. The father who could neither read nor write went to the local butcher and asked him to read the letter. The butcher read in a commanding and stern voice: "Father, send me the money! Said the father is that how my son talks? I will send him a penny! The mother, on hearing this, suggested maybe the butcher doesn't read so well. Let's take the letter to the chazan. They took the letter to the chazan - and in a voice full of pathos and emotion he beseeched "Father! Send me money!" On hearing this, the father said

  • "Nu, if he asks so nicely, I am prepared to send himsome money! The same may be said of Bnei Yisrael at this point. When they asked "what shall we drink" they used the tone of the shochet and not the tone of the chazan. It was for this reason that this incident was counted among the ten times the Jewish people tested Hashem.

Water requirement of a fully-grown adult donkey is in the range of 18 to 35 litres per day according to the above circumstances (Fielding and Krause 1998). Given the fact that the desert is acrid and dry, let's say 32L/day for a healthy donkey multiplied by 54 (assuming the rest of the Bnei Yisrael under 20, those over 60, and the Erev Rav did not also have 90 donkeys) yields 1 billion, 728 million litres of water or 456,489,306 and a half gallons per day. If the dew or man melted half a billion gallons a day conservatively (again just for the donkeys and not the people or the rest or the livestock), it would flood the land. It very well could be that the man was super condensed or was miraculously satiable, but it seems more likely that they simply did not have enough to drink and were required to ask Hashem. This is not to say that Hashem sent them lacking, chas v'shalom, but to shed them of their remaining yeshut representative of the Mitzri culture in order to prepare them for the ultimate waters of Torah. What separated the generation in the midbar vis-à-vis the generation that actually entered Eretz Yisrael was the presence/absence of miracles. Had Hashem kept providing for them, over and above what is natural, they would have never been able to take over and till the land as Ben Gurion has stated about Sde Boker. So, this was not so much a test as it was a trial run for what was to come.

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  • Not to get all kabalistic, but part of Ana Emloch is Hashem's desire for a symbiotic relationship as a melech and not a tyrannical moshal. He chose the Hebrews because all the other nations were only out for themselves.
    – Kfir
    May 30 at 22:50
  • Your quote addresses one specific case where the Torahh clearly says they did not have enough water. That does not help for the rest of the 40 years when Hashem provided for them.
    – N.T.
    Jun 2 at 2:14
  • Well, that entire generation also died in the midbar, bamidbar 32:13, so perhaps dehydration played a factor. It's possible that the generation who survived did so precisely because they petitioned Hashem and in kind Hashem provided. Those who didn't, perished.
    – Kfir
    Jun 10 at 18:38
  • No offense, but you need to actually read the story.
    – N.T.
    Jun 10 at 20:26

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