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Shewbread or Showbread

SHEWBREAD or SHOWBREAD (Heb. לֶחֶם פָּנִים / הַפָּנִים; JPS, "bread of display"), the bread laid out in the Temple on the golden table (Ex. 25:30; I Sam. 21:7; I Kings 7:48; II Chron. 4:19) which is called "the table of Shewbread" in Numbers 4:7. The shewbread is also referred to as לֶחֶם הַתָּמִיד ("the regular bread"). On the other hand the Hagiographa use the terms לֶחֶם הַמַּצֲרֶכֶת (Neh. 10:34; I Chron. 9:32; 23:29), מַצֲרֶכֶת לֶחֶם (II Chron. 13:11), מַצֲרֶכֶת תָּמִיד (II Chron. 2:3), or simply מָצֲרֶכֶת (I Chron. 28:16; II Chron. 29:18, on the basis of Lev. 24:6–7). It is also called צֵרֶךְ לֶחֶם ("a row of bread": Ex. 40:23; cf. verse 4).

The manner in which the shewbread was prepared is described in Leviticus 24:5–9. Like most meal-offerings, it also was made of semolina. Consisting of 12 loaves, apparently corresponding in number to the tribes of Israel, the shewbread was arranged on the table in two rows of six loaves. Each loaf was made of two-tenths of an ephah, twice the quantity of the usual meal-offering (Num. 15:4, et al.), resembling in this respect only the two waveloaves of the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:17). Frankincense was placed on the shewbread (Lev. 24:7), but unlike the prescriptions for other meal-offerings it is here explicitly stated that the frankincense had to be pure, and furthermore that the token (portion אַזְכָּרָה) contained only the frankincense (in contrast to the token portion of a usual meal-offering, which contained some oil and fine flour in addition to the frankincense; Lev. 2:2). Thus no part of this bread was put on the altar, since only the token portion was burned. The talmudic halakhah prescribes that these loaves were to be of un-leavened bread (Men. 5a; cf. Jos., Ant., 3:255), although this is not explicitly mentioned in the text, which likewise makes no reference to their being seasoned with salt, as was done with other meal-offerings (Lev. 2:13). However, the Septuagint (Lev. 24:7) adds Καῖ "αλας ("and salt"), and according to the halakhah the frankincense was to be salted before being burned on the altar (Men. 20a). The loaves were changed every Sabbath. On the basis of the relevant passages it may be presumed that the priest did not have to go into the Holy of Holies especially for this purpose, but would change the loaves when he came there on the Sabbath at the appointed times, that is, either in the morning or at dusk, to attend to the lamps or the incense altar. As in the case of most meal-offerings, the shewbread was eaten by males among the priests in a sacred place.

The evidence concerning the shewbread in the Sanctuary of Nob (I Sam. 21:1–7) does not substantially contradict the instructions contained in Leviticus; there is only a difference in presentation, like that between Priestly Code of laws and historical writings. Here, too, it can be seen that the shewbread consisted not of one but of several loaves (as shown by the plural הַמּוּסָרִים in verse 7); their number is not given, this detail being unnecessary for the narrative. The shewbread is here called לֶחֶם קֹדֶשׁ ("holy bread," verse 5). That given by the priest Ahimelech to David was presumably from the old loaves previously "removed from before the Lord" (verse 7) and as yet uneaten; it was not removed on that day by Ahimelech from the table especially for David and his men. The only point that conflicts with what is stated in Leviticus is the view expressed here that the old loaves could be eaten by non-priests in a state of purity, not specifically by priests in a holy place. This is, however, a general feature of the non-Priestly sources of the Bible, that sometimes permit to non-priests "sanctified" by purity what the Priestly sources (i.e., P and Ezek. 40–48) permit only to males among the priests.

The custom of placing loaves of bread on a table in a sanctuary before the god, coupled with other ritual acts, was prevalent in various places and times. Clear parallels of this custom existed in Babylonia, although not a few differences distinguish these from the specific crystallization in the Israelite style. Some have sought to find in Akkadian sources the special term akāl pānu, which corresponds to the biblical shewbread, but the reading has been found to be erroneous.


P. Haupt, in: JBL, 19 (1900), 59; E. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstaemme (1906), 172–3; D. Hoffmann, Das Buch Leviticus, 2 (1906), 309–11; F. Thureau-Dangin, Die sumerischen und akkadischen Koenigsinschriften (1907), 50–51; idem, Rituels accadiens (1921), 62 ff.; G.A. Barton, in: JBL, 46 (1927), 88; F. Blome, Die Opfermaterie in Babylonien und Israel, 1 (1934), 248–9; Pritchard, Texts, 343ff.; G.R. Driver, in: VTS, 4 (1957), 4; M. Haran, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 8 (1961), 278–9.

[Menahem Haran]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.