Lehem Ha-Panim

One aspect of the sacrificial cult often skimmed over in Hebrew school was lehem ha-panim, sometimes translated as shewbread, or more palatably, bread of display. Lehem ha-panim also has been translated as "the bread of the face (of God)" or ""the bread of the Presence". It is also referred to in the Torah as lehem hamma'arekhet [1] "bread of the row" and as erekh lehem[2] "a row of bread."

Shewbread tableAccording to the description in Leviticus, twelve cakes of pure wheaten flour were laid out in two lines on a table which stood in front of the Holy of Holies, and were renewed every Sabbath. These cakes (or loaves) were eaten at the end of the week by the priests. While similar to the minhah in that it was a flour offering, lehem ha-panim differed in that none of it was placed on the altar for the "Most High." Frankincense (levonah; an ingredient of the incense), however, was placed alongside each line of loaves as an azkarah (token/reminder offering), and was burnt (on the altar of perfumes) when the priests removed the loaves each Sabbath.

Writes Bible scholar Roland de Vaux:[3]: "The fact that incense was placed there justifies us in regarding the loaves as something like a sacrificial offering, and Ezekiel himself likens the table on which they were put to an altar.[4]." This table is described as part of the furniture of the desert Tent of Meeting a table made of acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold, with a rim of gold all around.[5]

Prof. Baruch Levine suggests that "two different modes of sacrifice are reflected in the prescribed manner of offering the bread of display. The loaves themselves were a presentation to God for which no altar of burnt offerings was used. The bread was viewed by God and, by this means, accepted by Him. Subsequently, the loaves were apportioned to the priests. In an effort to adapt this widespread mode of sacrifice to the more distinctive method of burning offerings on the altar, frankincense was to be burned near the loaves of bread; just as with other offerings of grain, a small amount of flour was burned on the altar. God was pictured as inhaling the aroma of the burning frankincense as 'an offering by fire.'"[6]

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The practice of displaying bread in the sanctuary is very ancient. There is a reference to this offering in an account from the early career of David. While fleeing from Saul, David and his men arrived at the sanctuary of Nob and were given some of the bread of display to eat.[7] According to ritual legislation, only priests were permitted to partake of these consecrated loaves and, then, only within sacred precincts; the priest at Nob checked that David's fighting men were in a pure state (that they "had kept themselves at least from women") before he permitted them to eat of the bread.

According to medieval commentator Ibn Ezra, the twelve loaves represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the offering was symbolic of the pledge of the Covenant between the Twelve Tribes and God. Just as a contract between men was sealed and a form of friendship forged by their taking of a meal together[8], so did ancient Israelite sacrifice seek to strengthen one's connection with God. As in the case of all ancient sacrifice, the bread of display sought to bring about God's appearance and his blessing. And God himself, by accepting the gift (which of course He does not need) as part of the ritualized renewal of the covenant, binds and obligates Himself in some way.

[1] I Chronicles 9:32 [back]
[2] Exodus 40:23 [back]
[3] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, Vol. 2: Religious Institutions, 1961. [back]
[4] Ezekiel 41:21-22 [back]
[5] Exodus 25:23-30 [back]
[6] In commentary to Leviticus, JPS edition, 1996. [Back]
[7] 1 Samuel 21:4-7 [back]
[8] Genesis 26:28-30; 31:44-45 [back]

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