Judaism: Manna from Heaven: Gift Wrap
Why Do You Gift Wrap?
Gift Wrapping is a common practice that transcends cultural and national lines. It is rare to receive a gift that isn’t wrapped; in fact the unwrapping is an entire ceremony with both giver and bystanders waiting with bated breath to take in the recipient’s joyful reaction. I once brought a gift for my great aunt who hosted my family overnight and asked my daughter to hand it to her. My aunt thanked her kindly and asked if she should unwrap it in our presence so we would experience her joy of receiving. I was moved by my aunt’s thoughtfulness and it got me to thinking, why do we wrap our gifts?
An informal survey of family and friends yielded some fascinating responses. One person said that the purpose of gift wrapping is concealment to enhance the experience of both giver and recipient. Should the gift be visible from the start, the recipient would know its content before it is given. Concealing the gift allows the joy of discovery to come all at once, making it palpable to both giver and recipient.
Another told me that gift wrapping is intended to conceal it from others. You don’t want others to see the gift before the recipient sees it. By wrapping it you allow the recipient to be the first to discover it, which makes the gift that much more special and enjoyable.
Others told me that gift wrapping simply makes the gift nicer. Just as you dress up to go to a wedding so should you dress up the gift you bring along. It tells the recipient that you care for them, are mindful of them and took the time to prepare the present properly for them.
Another told me that gift wrapping elevates the item to gift status. You don’t bring a toaster to a wedding, you bring a gift. It would be out of place for people to come to a wedding with dishes, towels, toasters and microwaves, but coming to a wedding with a gift is not only acceptable, but admirable. Gift wrapping elevates a simple toaster to a thoughtful gift.
Along those lines it occurred to me that gift wrapping is our way of declaring that the object of the gift is less important than the thoughtfulness. I didn’t buy this toaster because I think you need one, I bought it to give you a gift. It is a token of my love, admiration, respect of even gratitude. By covering it up we declare that the content of the gift doesn’t matter; it’s the thought that counts.
Finally I thought that gift wrapping sends a message to the recipient. I hope you want or need this, but please understand that this gift is merely a token. It cannot begin to capture or express everything you mean to me. It is not an item that I am giving, but an expression of my feeling that I am conveying.
I feel certain that when you read this article you will think of reasons and ideas that were not covered by my informal survey and I encourage you to share them with me, but here is where I want to turn this conversation to a gift we received from G-d and a reciprocal gift that we give to G-d every week.
Heavenly Gift Wrapping
In the desert our ancestors received a daily gift from heaven called Manna. It was a miraculous form of food delivered six days a week gift wrapped in layers of dew, one above it and one below it. # The Jews waited for the sun to rise and for the top layer of dew to evaporate before venturing out to collect their daily ration.# The ordinary understanding is that it was covered to protect the food and keep it fresh, but perhaps the covering carries a deeper meaning.
By wrapping the Manna G-d made it special for us. He didn’t just send us out to forage on the tundra like desert rats, He took the time to gift wrap and dress it up nicely to communicate that we are precious to Him. Wrapping it also elevated the food from a simple feeding to a special gift, another way to make us feel special. It also told us that the substance of the food is not what nourishes us; the gift of G-d nourishes. Of course the gift wrapping also created a daily thrill of discovery for the Jews as they waited every day with bated breath to discover their treasure beneath the dew.
Finally, we are taught that the melted dew flowed like rivulets into the desert, where animals enjoyed its delicious flavors.# By concealing the Manna under the dew, G-d guarded it from the animals to ensure that we would be the first to discover and partake of it.
Gift Wrapping the Challa
Every Friday night we place two loaves of Challa and place under a cloth it to commemorate the gift of Manna. We wrap it as G-d did to demonstrate that our gift is as precious to Him as His gift was to us.
Another reason for covering the Challa is so that the Challa would not “see” that it was ignored till after we chanted the Kiddush. # We mentioned earlier that one reason for gift wrapping is so that others wouldn’t see the gift before the recipient would. The Challa is a gift to G-d, whose way of receiving gifts is to return them to us and have us eat it in His place. It would be awkward, even shameful, if the gift sat on the table for all to see and were only given to the recipient at a later point in the meal.# By keeping the Challa covered until we eat it, the delivery of the gift is effectively postponed, obviating the shamefulness of the delay.
Another aspect of this covering is that finite humans can hardly create gifts worthy of the Divine. What does G-d need that He doesn’t already have? Furthermore, how can we capture the entirety of our feelings for G-d in a mere gift? We wrap the Challa to declare that the gift is not so much about the particulars of the Challa, but about our sentiment of humble gratitude and all pervasive love for G-d. The Challa itself is meaningless, but gift wrapping it expresses our true love for G-d.
Gift to G-d
I conclude with the story of the man who placed twelve loaves of Challa every Friday in his Synagogue’s ark just beside the Torah scroll. Every Shabbat morning he was ecstatic to see that the Challa was gone; G-d had obviously accepted and eaten his gift. Meanwhile another man went to the Synagogue every Friday to pray to G-d for food and upon opening the ark discovered G-d’s gift. Every week, one man gave twelve loaves to G-d and another man received it. Indeed, Challa is a gift, one that pays us back.