In Exodus 25:30, God commands the Israelites to bake “shewbread”: “And thou shalt set upon the table shewbread for me always.” “Shewbread” or “showbread” is the King James Bible’s translation of the Hebrew phrase lechem panim, which can also be taken to mean “bread of the presence” or, more literally still, “bread of faces.” All these translations hint at the most important thing about this offering, which is that it remains on display in the Temple all week long—on show in the presence of God.
Exodus 25 only mentions the shewbread, without explaining what it is or how it is made. The focus in that passage is rather on the table where it is displayed—a small table (two cubits by one cubit, or about 3 feet by 1.5 feet), made of acacia wood covered with gold, and designed to be carried on detachable rods. It is left to Leviticus 24 to specify that the shewbread takes the form of 12 loaves, each made from two-tenths of an ephah of flour, and arranged in two stacks of six loaves apiece. Unlike other meal offerings we have read about in Tractate Menachot, the showbread is not burned on the altar but set out on a special table, where it remains from one Shabbat to the next. Only once it has been removed and replaced by new bread is it given to the priests to eat.
In Chapter 11 of Tractate Menachot, which Daf Yomi readers studied this week, the rabbis supplied further details about how the shewbread functioned in the Temple. According to the mishna in Menachot 94a, the loaves were “kneaded one by one and baked two by two”—that is, two loaves were placed in the oven at the same time. And while the Torah doesn’t say anything about the shape of the loaves, we learn that they were baked in molds so they would retain a particular shape. In fact, the Gemara explains, there were three molds, one for each stage of the process: The dough was kneaded in one mold, baked in a second, and then placed in a third when it was removed from the stove, so it would retain its shape.
But while the rabbis agree that these molds existed, there is a dispute over exactly what shape they took. One might assume that the loaves of shewbread were regular round loaves, but this is apparently not so. According to Rabbi Chanina, the loaf took the form of “a box that is open on two sides”: that is, a flat bottom with two tall “walls” rising up on either end. Later in the chapter, in Menachot 96a, Ben Zoma endorses this idea by interpreting the word “panim,” in “lechem panim,” to mean “sides”—thus the shewbread must have tall sides.
Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, maintains that it was shaped like “a rocking boat”—a rather confusing image, which commentators have struggled to understand. It seems to suggest that the loaf was like an inverted triangle, with a base narrower than its top, like a boat that would be unsteady in the water. Here is one of those many Talmudic occasions when words have to do the work of images—an unavoidable problem in a text that was originally transmitted orally.
Either possible shape creates difficulties when the rabbis try to imagine how the loaves were stacked. That is because, according to the Gemara, the priests used thin rods to separate the loaves, so that each loaf rested on the rods rather than directly on the loaf beneath. “What is the reason” for these rods, the rabbis ask in Menachot 96a? The answer is a practical one: “because the bread is apt to become moldy.” The rods were supposed to prevent this by creating space for air to flow between the loaves.
Now try to imagine how loaves of this unusual shape could be stacked with rods. This makes sense if the loaf is shaped like a box open on two sides, since the base of the loaf is flat. But if the loaf is shaped like a rocking boat—that is, more or less like a V—it would seem that you could only place one rod on it, inside the base of the V. But the tradition says that three rods were used between each loaf. Where would the other two rods go? The Gemara ventures that the baker “would make a protrusion” in the loaves, widening the base so the loaf could rest on three rods. The rabbis consider several other factors in an attempt to decide which loaf shape is the correct one, but in the end there is no definite resolution.
But that’s not the end of the discussion. Regardless of the shape of the loaves, where were they baked? The mishna records a disagreement; the rabbis say that the loaves were kneaded and shaped outside the Temple, and only baked in an oven in the Temple grounds. Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, says that the whole procedure had to take place within the Temple courtyard.
And in fact, as Rav Sheshet points out in the Gemara, the rabbis’ answer leads to a paradox. If the loaves could be made outside the Temple, this implies that they were not sacred until they were baked, since sacred dough could not leave the Temple grounds. But if the dough was unconsecrated, why did it have to be brought into the Temple for baking at all? Rav Sheshet is given special credit for seeing the contradiction here—Rabba refers to him as “a formidable man who is as tough as iron.” Still, the Gemara does offer a solution: perhaps the dough does not become sacred until it is placed inside the oven, which would explain why it can be kneaded outside the Temple, but must remain inside the Temple after it is baked.
A further conundrum concerns the size of the loaves. According to the mishna, the shewbread loaves are 10 handbreadths long and five handbreadths wide. But the sacred table on which the loaves are displayed is itself only ten handbreadths by five handbreadths. This would be fine if all the loaves were in one stack, but the Torah specifies that they must be arranged in two stacks. To accomplish this, the loaves must be placed in such a way that they would protrude over the sides of the table by two-and-a-half handbreadths on each side.
What keeps the loaves from drooping and breaking? The answer is that, on each side of the table, there is a tall golden panel that supports the sides of the loaves. To figure out how tall these panels are, the rabbis must calculate the height of the stack of loaves, which also means figuring out whether to include the height of the rods in the total.
By the time the rabbis have finished with the subject, the shewbread has become a considerably more complicated affair than it seems in the Torah itself. Instead of a pile of bread, we have a complex apparatus of panels and rods used to suspend loaves of unusual shape. Whether such an apparatus really existed in the Temple, or whether the rabbis have invented it out of their reading of the Torah and scraps of oral tradition, is impossible to say. Like so much of what the Talmud says about the Temple, it remains a kind of speculative historical fiction.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.