The Table of the Show Bread
Introduction to Parashat
Yeshivat Har Etzion
The Table of the Show Bread
By Rav Michael Hattin
God spoke to Moshe saying: "Speak to the people of Israel and let them collect a contribution for Me, from every person whose heart moves him you shall accept a contribution. This is the contribution that you shall collect from them: gold, silver and bronze; sky blue, purple, crimson, linen and goatskins; hides of rams dyed red, seal hides and acacia wood; oil for the lights, spices for the anointing oil and for the incense of spices; onyx stones and precious stones to set into the efod and the breastplate. They shall fashion for Me a holy sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them. You shall fashion the Mishkan and its vessels just as I show you " (Shemot 25:1-9)
Thus begins the account of the fashioning of the wilderness Tabernacle, a lengthy and detailed narrative that takes up the greatest part of the remainder of Sefer Shemot. The short introductory paragraph above that catalogues the required contributions provides us with an excellent summary of the elements involved: precious metals and wood for the vessels and the building walls, valuable dyes and embroidered textiles for its tent-like covers as well as for the priestly garments, precious stones for the vestments of the High Priest, and specially formulated oils and spices for anointing and kindling. Significantly, the materials for the project are to be collected from the people of Israel as free-will offerings, emphasizing the fact that for service of God to be meaningful it must be the product of autonomy as well as sincere.
THE VESSELS OF THE MISHKAN
Our Parasha goes on to describe the fashioning of the Mishkan's most important vessels: the Ark of the Testimony, the Table of the Show Bread, and the Menora. Attention is then turned to the curtains and boards of the building, as well as to the separations within that space, before interest is again focused on another vessel: the bronze altar. The account of our section then concludes with a discussion of the courtyard enclosure. Structurally, it is readily apparent that the ordering principle that guides the textual organization of the various sections is the concept of hierarchy. That is to say that the most important vessels are stated first, followed by a discussion of their respective enclosures: the Ark is to be placed within the so-called Holy of Holies, a sacred space that is separated from the rest of the building by a dividing curtain. The Table and Menora that are described in turn are still located within the building proper, but beyond the dividing curtain and in an area of lesser sanctity known as the Holy. The bronze altar, in contrast, is located entirely outside of the building in the outer courtyard, an exterior enclosure that is again demarcated by curtains.
This week, we will turn our attention to the account of the Table of the Show Bread, a glorious piece of gilded furniture with an unusual function. We will first consider the relevant verses before investigating some of the other sources on the matter:
You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits in length, one cubit in width, and one-and-one-half cubits in height. You shall gild it with pure gold and fashion for it an ornamental border around (its top). You shall prepare a frame for it one handbreadth in width and you shall fashion an ornamental border around the frame. You shall make for it four rings of gold, and you shall place the rings on the four corners of its four legs. The rings shall be adjacent to its frame and they shall function as receptacles for the staves in order to carry the table. You shall fashion the staves out of acacia wood and cover them with gold and with them the table shall be carried. You shall prepare its baking pans and its incense bowls, its shelf supports and its bars that cover it out of pure gold. You shall place upon the table show bread before Me always (Shemot 25:23-30).
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE TABLE AND ITS LOAVES
We note that the section describing the Table appears in the text immediately after the account of the Aron or Ark of the Covenant that is presented in Chapter 25 verses 10-22 and constitutes the Mishkan's most precious object. In ranking, then, the Table is second only to this gilded chest that contains the fabled Tablets of the Decalogue and it textually precedes the account of its more illustrious and well-known counterpart, the Menora, that is spelled out in Chapter 25 verses 31-40. Like these other two vessels that in our Parasha bracket it on either side, the Table is a golden affair, adorned and ornate. Like them as well, it is also functional. It is constructed to hold the "loaves of the show bread," although the exact nature of these loaves is not described in our Parasha. It is, in fact, in Sefer Vayikra Parashat Emor (Leviticus 24) that the characteristics of this unique bread are detailed, appropriately enough alongside a description of the pure oil that is needed to kindle the Menora:
God spoke to Moshe saying: Command the people of Israel and collect from them pure beaten olive oil for the lamp, to kindle lights continuously. Beyond the dividing curtain that shields the Ark, in the Tent of Meeting shall Aharon set up the light so that it burns from evening to morning before God continuously, it is an eternal statue for all of your generations. Upon the pure Menora shall he set up the lights, before God continuously.
You shall take fine flour and bake it into twelve loaves, and each loaf shall contain two tenths (of an efah). You shall place them in two stacks of six loaves upon the holy Table before God. You shall place pure frankincense alongside the stacks that shall serve as a memorial portion for the loaves, to be burned as a fire offering to God. On every Shabbat he shall arrange the loaves before God continuously, it shall be an eternal covenant from the people of Israel. The bread shall be for Aharon and for his sons and they shall consume it in a sanctified area, for it is holy of holies from among God's fire offerings, a statue forever (Vayikra 24:1-9).
It thus emerges that the purpose of the Table is to hold twelve loaves of bread, baked from the finest flour and arranged in two sets of six loaves each. These twelve loaves, "an eternal covenant from the people of Israel" presumably represent the twelve tribes, and they are to remain on the Table from one Shabbat to the next. That is to say that the Table is never to be bereft of bread, for when the old loaves are removed to be consumed by the kohanim, fresh loaves are immediately arranged on the Table to take their place. Also, there is an additional element to the rites, for upon the Table is also placed a container of fragrant frankincense that is ultimately burned upon the altar as a "memorial for the bread."
In addition to the Biblical text, the Rabbis have preserved a number of remarkable traditions concerning the loaves and the Table, and some of these are recounted in Talmud Bavli Tractate Menachot 94a-100b. The Mishna (96a) for instance, preserves a fascinating disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir concerning the placement of the loaves upon the Table:
the Table was 10 handbreadths long and 5 wide. The loaves were each 10 handbreadths long and 5 wide. They would place the length of loaves across the width of the Table and bend up 2 ½ handbreadths on either end so that the length of the loaves would exactly fill the width of the Table. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Meir, however, says that the Table was 12 handbreadths long and 6 wide. The loaves were each 10 handbreadths long and 5 wide. They would place the length of the loaves across the width of the Table and bend up 2 handbreadths on either side, and then leave a space of 2 handbreadths between he stacks so that the air might enter in between
The disagreement of Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir involves larger issues such as the number of handbreadths that constitute the cubit measurement used to construct the holy vessels (5 handbreadths versus 6 handbreadths), and they also argue concerning the exact dimensions of the bent-up ends of the loaves (2 ½ handbreadths versus 2 handbreadths). They do, however, agree on one fundamental point: the preparation and placement of the loaves upon the Table highlight the fact that this vessel is not simply a neutral object that holds bread as a shelving unit might hold goods but rather it is nothing but a holder of the loaves that are expressly fashioned for it. In other words, the overall effect of the loaves placed upon the Table is one of a stand that is COMPLETELY filled with bread, there being no room on the Table for anything else. Every part of its surface area is covered with the loaves and these then extend in great stacks 6 loaves high! The loaves are baked in such a way so as to exactly fill the Table to capacity! How are we to understand the significance of this fact?
THE SPECIAL PLACE OF BREAD
In our culture as in most others, bread occupies a special and central place in the human diet. It is often referred to as the "staff of life" (see Vayikra 26:26; Tehillim 105:16; et al) and in a generic sense is sometimes even used in the Tanakh in place of the word "food" (see for instance Bereishit 3:19; 28:20; 47:12; et al). While bread can be prepared from different grains, and various human societies favor this grain or that, all breads are regarded as the staples that constitute the foundation of the food pyramid. The Table is of course housed in the Mishkan and placed specifically on its northern flank (Shemot 40:22). Spatially, it is opposite the Menora that is located to the south (Shemot 40:24), so that both of these vessels stand just beyond the dividing curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant. The Mishkan is a building that constitutes the place of encounter with God; it provides the Israelites not only with a location in space to experience His presence, but also with potent symbols of God's ongoing care and concern. The Table of the Show Bread, then, is about inculcating a fundamental trust in God as the Provider and the Sustainer of physical existence. Our survival as material beings is first and foremost a function of our ability to secure basic sustenance; without a regular supply of nutritious food, we quickly wither and perish. But while many of us labor mightily under the assumption that we can guarantee our primary needs by dint of our power and skill, the Table indicates to us otherwise: we are able to endure and to prosper only because of God's ongoing intervention in providing for us. The twelve loaves of the Show Bread represent the twelve tribes of Israel, each of them sustained from on High by God's beneficence. By placing this Table within the confines of the Mishkan and piling it high with loaves of bread, loaves that remain on its surface at all times, we assert that God is the Guarantor of our physical survival, and the constant Sustainer of our physical lives.
As such, the Table's perfect analog in this equation is of course the Menora that stands just opposite to the south. As we have seen in past years, the Menora is the affirmation that God supplies and inspires our intellectual and spiritual needs and accomplishments as well, for the knowledge and wisdom that are symbolically associated with its pure and precious light are hereby presented as deriving from God. The binary message afforded by both of these vessels is thus singularly significant. The human being who can acknowledge the precious gift of physical life as well as the invaluable boon of intellectual potential is well on the way to leading a life of not only enhanced meaning, but also of more responsible and God-like behavior.
See the curious statement of Rabbi Yitzchak preserved in Talmud Bavli 25b concerning the direction of prayer: "One who desires to acquire wisdom should face south in prayer while one who desires to acquire wealth should face north. Let the sign be the Table to the north and the Menora to the south." While the Talmud goes on to reconcile this statement with the normative tradition of facing the land of Israel in prayer, what is significant for our purposes is the link that Rabbi Yitzchak draws between the Table and wealth on the one hand and the Menora and wisdom on the other. These are of course the "physical sustenance" and the "spiritual sustenance" spoken of above.