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The Showbread: The How and Why of the Temple Bread Offering

The Showbread: The How and Why of the Temple Bread Offering

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It was called bread, but it was matzah. It stood in the open air for a full week and didn’t become stale. And its preparation required special expertise.

It was the showbread, the bread of the Tabernacle (the portable Temple) and, later, the Holy Temples.

Bread for the Creator

When G‑d commanded the children of Israel to make a Tabernacle, He gave a long, detailed list of all the vessels to be used in it. Among them was a golden table. The showbread was to be placed on the table: “On the table, the showbread should be placed before Me at all times.”1

The Torah gives us more details about this mitzvah—how many loaves of bread there should be, their weight, and the day of the week on which they should be brought as an offering to the Creator:

Take the finest grade of wheat flour and bake it into 12 loaves. Each loaf will be made from two-tenths of an eifah (2.7 liters; 1 gallon). Arrange these loaves in two stacks, six loaves to a stack, on the pure table, before G‑d. Put pure frankincense beside these stacks. This will be the memorial portion, a fire-offering to G‑d. Every Shabbat these loaves should be placed before G‑d—it is an eternal covenant that this must come from the children of Israel. The [bread] will be given to Aaron and his descendants to eat in a holy place, since it is a most holy fire-offering to G‑d. This is an eternal law.2

From this passage we learn that the showbread was placed on the table in two stacks, each stack containing six loaves. Frankincense (resin extracted from the Boswellia sacra tree) was placed on the table with the showbread. Fresh loaves of bread replaced the old loaves on the table every Shabbat, and the Kohanim (priests) would eat the loaves that were removed from the table.

Bread Artisans

How did the loaves of showbread look? The Talmud cites different opinions.

According to Rabbi Chanina, the loaves were made “like an open ark,” but according to Rabbi Yochanan, they looked “like a dancing ship.”3

What do these images mean?

Rashi4 opines that “an open ark” is like an upside down chet (ח, the eighth letter of the Hebrew alphabet). In other words, each loaf looked like a two-sided box with no lid. The Rambam (Maimonides),5on the other hand, says that the upper edges of the loaves were turned in, so that the loaves looked like a two-sided box whose upper flaps were slightly pushed in.

And what does “a dancing ship” look like? Rashi says that this refers to the shape of a ship whose hull is narrow where it touches the water, but wider towards the top. Since the ship stands on a narrow base, it’s not very stable, and so it “dances.” In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi draws a picture that looks like the English letter V. However, the Ba’alei HaTosefot (another commentary on the Talmud) say that above the V shape, the sides of the loaves rose straight up.

Whatever shape it was, the baking of the showbread was a real art.

Remember that:

  • The loaves were uniquely shaped, and they had to remain whole and unbroken during the baking and afterwards.
  • The loaves were standing exposed to the air for a full week, and they must have been made according to a special recipe, because they never became moldy or dried out.
  • The loaves had to be baked quickly so they wouldn’t become chametz (leavened).
  • The loaves were fairly large, each weighing almost five kilograms (11 lbs.).

The Talmud6 tells us that there was a family named Garmu who were experts at preparing the showbread. The sages asked them to teach other people the secrets of preparing the showbread, but they refused and were fired. Specialists were brought from Alexandria, Egypt, who knew how to bake, but they did not know how to take the loaves from the oven as well as the Garmus did, and in spite of their many attempts, their loaves became moldy. The Garmus were summoned back to their job, and the showbread was once again offered. When they were asked why they wouldn’t teach anyone else how to do the work, they said, “We know that the Temple will be destroyed, and we are concerned that an unworthy man will learn how to bake the showbread and use it to serve an idol.”

In addition, the Garmu family was known to be honest. The showbread was made from clean flour that had been sifted many times. The family never ate bread made from fine flour, only simple, rough bread, so that no one would suspect them of using the lechem hapanim flour for their own meals.

What Was Done with the Showbread?

The loaves of showbread were placed on the table in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple. They were placed in two stacks of six loaves each, with reeds separating the loaves.

Every Shabbat, after the Mincha (afternoon) sacrifice, the old loaves were replaced with new ones. The old loaves were given to Kohanim to eat.

Reasons for the Name

In Hebrew, the showbread is called lechem hapanim, which translates literally as “face bread.” The Talmud says that it was called lechem hapanim because it had many “faces,” i.e., many sides.7 The translation of the verse by Yonatan ben Uziel into Aramaic says that the showbread got its name because it was inside ("p’nim”) the hall of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Why Showbread?

Maimonides says8 that he wasn’t able to find explanations for this mitzvah. However, different explanations have been given over the years, and there is a central message that is similar in all the explanations: the showbread symbolizes the material abundance that G‑d gives to the Jews. It’s a continuous reminder that our livelihoods and food come only from G‑d.

Three times a year, when the children of Israel made the pilgrimage to the Holy Temple—on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot—they were shown the table and the showbread. “Look at how beloved you are by G‑d!” the Kohanim would tell them, pointing to the showbread, which stayed hot and fresh even though it was left out for a whole week.9

The Talmud10 tells us, “If a person wants to become rich, he should point his feet to the north when he prays.” The table was on the north side of the Temple, and the showbread was a perpetual reminder of G‑d’s generosity, and the channel for abundance and prosperity.

Footnotes
3.
These opinions are presented in Tractate Menachot 94b.
4.
Ibid.
5.
Laws of Tamids and Musafs, chapter 5.
6.
Yoma 38a.
7.
Mishnah, Tractate Menachot 11:4.
8.
Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 45.
9.
Menachot 29a.
10.
Bava Basra 25a.
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the editor of Beit Chabad, the Hebrew edition of Chabad.org.
Translated by Esther Rabi.
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