Composition and Presentation. —Biblical Data:

Twelve cakes, with two-tenths of an ephah in each, and baked of fine flour, which were ranged in two rows (or piles) on the "pure" table that stood before Yhwh and remained exposed to view for a week. A better term than "showbread" is the marginal reading of the Revised Version—"presence-bread" (Ex. xxv. 30), for this offering was required to be constantly before or in the presence of Yhwh. Each Sabbath fresh cakes replaced the old, which then belonged to the priests, who were required to eat them in a holy place, since the bread was holy. Upon the rows of cakes cups of frankincense were placed; this frankincense constituted the "azkarah," or memorial, and was offered upon the altar to Yhwh (Lev. xxiv. 4-9). According to I Chron. ix. 32, the sons of the Kohathites had charge of the baking and setting in order of the "bread of the row," as the Hebrew describes it. It would thus seem that the preparing of these cakes involved certain information which was kept as a secret by this priestly set. Mention is made of the showbread in the story of David's adventure at Nob. Ahimelek, the priest, at David's request, gave him the "holy" bread, that is, the stale loaves that had been taken away and replaced by "hot" ones (I Sam. xxi. 4-6; comp. Matt. xii. 4; Luke vi. 4). In Solomon's Temple provision was made for the proper exhibition of the loaves (I Kings vii. 48; comp. II Chron. iv. 19, xiii. 11). Though not explicitly stated to be so, these cakes were most probably unleavened. It is true they were not offered upon the altar, from which leaven was scrupulously excluded (Lev. ii. 11); but, as most holy, they were carried into and exposed in the inner sanctuary, and therefore the supposition that the use of leaven in them was prohibited carries a high degree of probability.

In Josephus.

The foregoing rather scanty data from the Biblical sources are confirmed and complemented by information vouchsafed by Josephus. The cakes were provided out of the common charge; they were without leaven, and contained twenty-four tenths of a "deal" of flour. Two heaps were baked the day before the Sabbath, and on the morning of the Sabbath were brought into the holy place, where they were set upon the holy table, six in a heap, one loaf leaning against another. On the top of each heap two golden cups of frankincense were placed; they remained there till the next Sabbath, when the fresh loaves were brought and the old loaves were given to the priests for their own consumption. The frankincense was burned in the sacred fire, and a new supply was placed upon the fresh loaves ("Ant." iii. 10, § 7).

—In Rabbinical Literature:

Rabbinical tradition has preserved specific details concerning the preparation of the showbread. The cakes were kneaded separately (Men. xi. 1), but they were baked two at a time. To give them the required shape different forms—according to Maimonides, of gold—were used: one form for the cakes while they were still dough, another while they were in the oven, and a third after they were baked, in order to prevent their being broken or spoiled (ib.; see Sifra to Lev. xxiv. 5-9; Maimonides, "Yad," Tamid, v. 8). According to some authorities, the kneading and heaping were done outside, the baking inside, the Sanctuary—a distinction for which the commentaries fail to assign a reason (ib. v. 7; Men. xi. 2; see Bertinoro and Lipmann Heller)—and, the Sabbath prohibition not being suspended on account of the showbread, the baking took place, as Josephus reports, on Friday (see "Yad," l.c. v. 10), but according to others, all preparations were carried on in the Temple court; according to others, in the house of Pagi, a suburb where the priests who knew the secret of the preparation may have lived. Maimonides' explanation is that this district, while not in, was very near, the courtyard.

Rabbinical Traditions.

According to the Mishnah (Men. xi. 4; "Yad," l.c. v. 9), the cakes had the following dimensions: ten fingers (Maimonides gives "palms") in length, five in breadth, and rims, or upturned "horns," of seven fingers in length. The incense was put into two cups, a handful into each (ib. v. 2). These cups were called "bezikin," and had flat bottoms, or rims, so that they could be placed on the table (Tosef., Men. xi.). The new bread was carried in by four priests, while two bore the two cups of incense. They were preceded by four other priests, two to remove the old loaves and two to take up the two cups containing the incense. Those that carried the new bread went to the north end of the table, facing toward the south; those that had preceded them went to the south end, facing the north. While the latter were removing the old bread, the former were depositing the new, so that the showbread was, in fact, always before the Lord ("Yad," l.c. v. 4; Men. 99b). The cakes that had been removed were placed on a golden table in the hall; then the incense in the cups was burned, after which the cakes were divided. When Yom Kippur happened to fall on the Sabbath, this division was delayed until evening ("Yad," l.c. v. 5). The cakes, molded in squares, were piled one above the other; hollow golden tubes conducted air between them, and each pile was supported by two golden, fork-shaped supports attached to the table (Men. 94b, 96a; "Yad," l.c. v. 2).

The Table.

The Biblical descriptions of the table of the showbread make no mention of such provisions to admit the air or hold the bread in position. The table was placed in the northern part of the Sanctuary, opposite the candlestick (Ex. xxvi. 35), with the altar of incense between them. The Septuagint states that this table was of massive gold, but the Hebrew (Ex. xxv., xxxvii.) that it was of acacia wood, two ells long, one ell broad, and one and one-half ells high,covered with pure gold, and with a border of gold around the top. The feet seem to have been enclosed, and to this ring-like enclosure were fastened four gold rings, through which the rods (made of acacia-wood and covered with gold) were passed when the table was carried. When on the march the table was covered with a purplish-blue cloth, upon which were placed the loaves and the vessels; over the whole was spread a scarlet cloth, and on top of this the skin of a seal (Num. iv. 7, 8). Only one table was found in the various sanctuaries, though II Chron. iv. 8 reports that ten tables were in the Hekal. The table of the showbread was taken from the Second Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (I Macc. i. 23), but it was replaced by another under Judas Maccabeus (I Macc. iv. 49).

Among the vessels enumerated as belonging to the table of the showbread are "ḳe'arot" (dishes, or, probably, the "forms" in which the cakes were baked) and "kappot" (hand-like bowls). These were the "bezikin" for the incense, "ḳesawot" (σπόνδεια) for the wine-libations, and "menaḳḳiyyot" (probably dippers). But according to the Jerusalem and Samaritan Targumim, the ḳesawot were intended to cover the loaves.

The dimensions given in the Mishnah for the table are the same as those given for the loaves—ten handbreadths long and five wide, the loaves being laid across the table. R. Akiba, however, disagreed with these figures. According to him, the table had a length of twelve handbreadths and a width of six, an interval remaining between the two piles, in which, according to Abba Saul, the cups of incense were placed. These dimensions are difficult to reconcile with the Biblical assumption that the loaves rested without support on the table (Men. xi. 5). The Mishnah gives the number of ventilating-tubes mentioned above as twenty-eight, fourteen for each heap. According to the statement that they were like the half of a hollow pipe, they must have been open on top. The Gemara (Men. 97) constructs from these data the following description of the table:

The four fork-like supports were let into the floor, two at each end of the table. They extended above the table, and between them, above the table, fourteen tubes, closed at one end, were fastened, forming a grate-like receptacle for the loaves. The lowest cake of each heap rested on the table; each of the next four rested on three tubes; the two upper cakes on two tubes. On the Arch of Titus the table of the showbread shows no such attachment (comp. Josephus, "B. J." v. 5, § 5; "Ant." iii. 6, § 6).

—Critical View:

The Pentateuchal passages in which reference is made to the showbread belong, without exception, to the Priestly Code. It would be unwarranted, however, on this score to hold the offering to have been a late innovation, due to Babylonian influences. The episode in David's visit to the old sanctuary at Nob proves the antiquity of the practise (I Sam. xxi. 1 et seq.). Ahimelek's scruples lest the men had not kept aloof from women and the assurance of David that they were in a state of sexual purity suggest the original meaning of the rite as a sacrificial meal, partaken of by the deity in common with his devotees, who, in order to make tryst with their god, must be in such a state of purity (comp. Ex. xix. 10-11, 15). Hence the bread is not burned, but the incense is, which also is an indication that the rite has descended from remote antiquity (Stade, "Biblische Theologie des Alten Testaments," 1905, i. 168). Stade connects it with the ancient cult of the Ark (ib.), the food of the deity being placed before him, ready for consumption whenever he chose to make his appearance.

The Hebrew custom has developed probably independently of a similar custom in Babylon, both starting, however, from the same root idea, which is found among other races and in other religions (comp. Isa. lxv. 11; Jer. vii. 18, xliv. 17 et seq.; Baruch vi. 26; comp. the instance of the Roman lectisternium). The Babylonians offered to the gods various kinds of cakes or bread ("akalu"), which they laid before them on tables, generally in sets of twelve or multiples of twelve. These cakes were required, to be sweet (i.e., unleavened), and were baked from wheaten flour. Even the Hebrew name "leḥem ha-panim" has its exact counterpart in the Assyrian "akal pânu" (Zimmern, in Schrader's "K. A. T." ii. 600). The number "twelve," which is so prominent in the showbread rite, has always borne mysterious religious significance (see Zimmern, l.c. p. 629).

  • B. Baentsch, Exodus-Leviticus, p. 419, Göttingen, 1900;
  • Riehm, Handwörterbuch, ii. 1405 et seq.
J. E. G. H.
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