The Showbread

Leviticus 24:5-9 (NASB)

5 "Then you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it; two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake.
6 "You shall set them in two rows, six to a row, on the pure gold table before the LORD.
7 "You shall put pure frankincense on each row that it may be a memorial portion for the bread, even an offering by fire to the LORD.
8 "Every sabbath day he shall set it in order before the LORD continually; it is an everlasting covenant for the sons of Israel.
9 "It shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy to him from the LORD'S offerings by fire, his portion forever."

This showbread (translated "shewbread" in the KJV) was, literally, "bread of the Presence." It consisted of twelve loaves of bread, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. It was placed on the table of the showbread, which is on the north side of the Tabernacle, in front of the Most Holy Place, opposite to the lampstand. It was arranged in two rows of six loaves each, with each loaf piled on top of another. Every Sabbath new loaves were placed on the table and the week-old loaves were taken off the table, and eaten by the priests in the Holy Place, or Sanctuary.

The showbread were baked by the Levites (I Chronicles 9:32; 23:29). They were baked and prepared with painstaking care, so that in appearance and color the lower should be exactly the same as the upper part of it. The loaves of the showbread were kneaded separately and baked in pairs. They were made ready in a mould; and when they were taken from the oven, they were once again put in a mould, lest they should suffer any damage.

The baking process was a complicated one, for it was necessary to preserve the wholeness of each loaf for the duration of a week, and to avoid it being crushed by the weight of the loaves above it. The method also had to insure that the bread would not become moldy or spoiled. The house of Garmo, a family of the Kohathites, was in charge of this process, and held a carefully guarded family secret, passed down from generation to generation, to keep the knowledge of the process alive and hidden from prying eyes of those who might seek to use the secret process to bake loaves for pagan idols.

The Table

Exodus 25:23-30 (NASB)

23 "You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits long and one cubit wide and one and a half cubits high.
24 "You shall overlay it with pure gold and make a gold border around it.
25 "You shall make for it a rim of a handbreadth around it; and you shall make a gold border for the rim around it.
26 "You shall make four gold rings for it and put rings on the four corners which are on its four feet.
27 "The rings shall be close to the rim as holders for the poles to carry the table.
28 "You shall make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold, so that with them the table may be carried.
29 "You shall make its dishes and its pans and its jars and its bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold.
30 "You shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before Me at all times.

The Table of Showbread

The table of showbread was a small table of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It was 2 cubits (3 feet) long, 1 cubit (1.5 feet) width and 1.5 cubits (2.25 feet) high. There was a gold frame around it near the top and another frame at middle joining the legs, holding them together. The table top consisted of a flat board of wood overlaid with gold. It was placed upon the top frame and was not attached to the legs. A golden rim ran around the frame and extended above the table top, possibly to hold it in place. There were gold rings attached to the legs adjacent to the top frame, through which the poles were passed when the table was carried.

On it were placed 12 loaves of bread, renewed each Sabbath, in 2 piles, together with dishes (for the bread), pans (incense cups), jars and bowls (for drink offerings), all of pure gold.

The Table on the Arch of Titus

On the triumphal Arch of Titus at Rome, which commemorates Titus' conquest of Judea which ended the Jewish Wars (66 - 70 AD). Its internal faces of the passageway depict in relief triumphal processions with the booty from the Temple at Jerusalem - the Lampstand, the Table of the Showbread and the silver trumpets.

Relief from Titus' Arch, Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying in triumph the Table of Showbread and the Silver Trumpets from the Temple.

The legs of the table were connected, about the middle, by a golden plate, which was surrounded by a "crown", or wreath, while another wreath ran round the top of the table.

Rabbinical Traditions

According to the Mishnah (a collection of Jewish law and tradition, compiled around 200 A.D. under the direction of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi), the loaves were rectangular, a cubit long, and 5 handbreadths wide (18" x 15"). They thus covered the entire table, leaving two handbreadths (6") in the middle for the pans of frankincense (Leviticus 24:7). According to others, the loaves covered the entire table, and the frankincense was placed on top of the stack.

Each loaf was made of "two-tenths of an ephah" of flour (Leviticus 24:5), which was approximately 4.5 litres. It was rolled into a loaf 5 handbreadths wide and 10 handbreadths long (15" x 30"). Before it was baked, the sides were bent up 2 handbreadths (6") on each side. This would give the bread its final square shape where its base was 5 x 6 handbreadths. The loaves would have the shape of a box with both ends removed.

In order to make the loaves, two sets of pans were needed, one set of gold, and one of iron. These were made in the form of the showbread as described above. The formed dough was placed in an iron pan and baked in this pan. Each of the 12 loaves was kneaded separately and baked in pairs. After the loaves were baked, each one was placed in its own pan of pure gold which also had the same shape as the loaves. The loaves would then be stored in these pans until the Sabbath.

The loaves were changed each Sabbath. On the Sabbath the loaves from the previous Sabbath were removed and replaced with new ones. Eight priests were involved when the showbread was changed. Four priests entered the Holy Place, two carrying each a pile of six showbread, and the other two priests carrying the two pans of frankincense. Four priests had preceded them, two to take off the old loaves of showbread (six each), and two to pick up the two pans of frankincense from the previous week. Those who brought in the new loaves and frankincense, stood at the north side of the table, facing southward, and the others priests stood on the south side of the table, facing northward. As the priests on the south side picked up the old showbread and frankincense pans, the priests on the north side replaced those with the new showbread and pans of frankincense, with perfect timing, at the very same moment, so that showbread was always upon the table, continually.

According to the Rabbis, a great miracle occurred with the loaves. When they were removed each Sabbath, the loaves were warm and fresh just as they were when they were put on the table a week earlier. The old loaves were eaten during the Sabbath, and in the Holy Place, but only by those priests that were in a state of Levitical purity.

The Table according to Rabbinical Traditions

In verse 29 of Exodus 25, the Rabbis regarded the Hebrew terms, translated as "bowls," as referring to half hollow golden tubes which were placed between the showbread so as to allow the air to circulate between them and to support them.

Compare verse 29 from the KJV and the Jewish Bible below.

Exodus 25:29 (Jewish Bible)

29 "For [the table] make bread forms, incense bowls, and side frames, as well as the half tubes that will serve as dividers [between the loaves of bread]. All these shall be made of pure gold.

According to the Rabbis, there were 28 tubes in all, 14 for each side. The lowest loaf was placed on the table itself. Then 3 tubes were placed between each loaf, except for the two upper ones, where only 2 were placed between them.

There were 4 side frames, two on each side of the table. Each pair of side frames would support 5 loaves (since the lowest loaf was placed on the table itself). These side frames stood on the ground and each had 28 grooves to hold the 28 tubes mentioned above that separated the loaves.

Although the main purpose of the tubes was to allow air circulation between the loaves, they also served another purpose. The loaves were fairly large and heavy, and if the weight of all the upper ones rested on the lower ones, the lower ones could break. Therefore the tubes were placed in the grooves in the side frames. The tubes could then support the weight of the loaves so that they would not rest on one another and would not be likely to break.

On Friday, before the changing of the showbread, the tubes were drawn out and the side frames were taken apart. The priests then replaced the showbread and the frankincense as described above. The side frames were again put in place and the tubes were inserted between the new loaves each Sunday. This was because the task of removing and inserting the tubes was not among those labors which superceded the law of Sabbath rest.

The Table of Showbread based on Jewish Interpretation

According to The Odyssey of the Third Temple, by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the table itself was of acacia wood, overlaid with gold, and weighed several "talents"  - each talent being about one hundred pounds. Thus the table itself weighed several hundred pounds, perhaps about four-five hundred pounds!

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References

Edersheim, Alfred. "The Temple - Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ." http://www.ccel.org/e/edersheim/temple/temple.htm [Originally published: 1874]

Dankenbring, William F. "Mystery of Mysteries - What Is the Showbread?" http://www.hope-of-israel.org/showbred.htm

Temple Institute. "The Table of Showbread" http://www.templeinstitute.org/table_showbread.htm