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Lechem Hapanim / Showbread

Here is a question I have never heard anyone ask: “Who baked the Lechem Hapanim (Showbread) in the Mishkan?”

As we know, in the thirty-nine years that Bnei Yisrael were traveling in the desert with the Mishkan, it was Aharon and his sons Elazar and Itamar who offered the korbanot and also switched the Lechem Hapanim on the Shulchan every Shabbat, as described in the Torah (Vayikra 24:5-9). From this one might mistakenly think that the job of preparing the Lechem Hapanim was also given to the Kohanim.


However, a verse in the Tanach, in Divrei Hayamim I (9:32) tells a different story: “And from the sons of Kehat, from their brothers, over the Showbread, to prepare every Shabbat.” In fact, from Divrei Hayamim it appears that all the expert bakers in the Beit HaMikdash were Levites (not Kohanim) from the family of Kehat. The above phrase “their brothers” refers to the preceding verse (9:31): “And from Matitya of the Levites, he is the firstborn of Shalum the Korchi (from the sons of Korach), entrusted over the Chavitin (of the Kohen Gadol).” This is the interpretation of the Ralbag (ibid, 9:32).

This week’s Torah portion of Bamidbar lists the three families of the Tribe of Levi – Gershon, Kehat and Merari – and their duties on the Mishkan. Regarding the Kehat family, (Bamidbar 3:31): “Their duties are the Aron, the Shulchan, the Menorah, the Altars, the Holy Vessels, the Curtain and all its work.” From the last two words, “VeChol Avodato” (all its work), it can be inferred that the Levites of the family of Kehat were entrusted not only with transporting the above vessels in the desert but also with the preparatory work required for the functioning of those vessels. This is indeed corroborated in Divrei Hayamim I, chapter 9 above – preparing the oil for the Menorah, the Lechem Hapanim for the Shulchan, etc. (ibid, 9:29). Some say the only exception was the Ketoret, which was prepared by the Kohanim (ibid, 9:30).

The clan of Kehat was divided into different families – Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron and Uziel – the sons of Kehat. We know that Moshe and Aharon (the Kohanim) were from the family of Amram, so they were not included. It follows that the remaining Levite families of Kehat and their sub-families (like the sons of Korach above, for example) were each allotted a specific task in the Mishkan and subsequently, their descendants continued to perform these tasks, in the Beit HaMikdash (I and II).

The Gemara (Yoma 38a) tells an interesting story about the family who baked the Lechem Hapanim in the time of the Second Beit HaMikdash, the Garmu family (it is likely that the pronunciation of the name is “Gremu” and not “Garmu,” derived from the Latin word “gremium,” meaning “inner” – relating to one translation of Lechem Pnim, the “inner” bread). As will soon become apparent, these Levites, descended from the family of Kehat, were super-master bakers. Such skill and perfection were a result of myriad generations being born into and trained from an early age to perform a specific task in the Mikdash. From the Gemara above it appears that the Garmu family were the only ones who knew the method of the preparation of the Lechem Hapanim; it was kept a closely guarded family secret. As we will soon see, this was not because they desired a monopoly for financial gain, but due to more altruistic reasons.

As the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash loomed, the Sages attempted to minimize the imminent damage by preserving all the proprietary knowledge of all the experts in the Mikdash – those who made the Lechem Hapanim, prepared the ketoret (incense offering), the singing techniques of the Levite choir, etc. They approached each of these families in turn and requested that they share their knowledge to record and physically preserve it. The Garmu Family refused to reveal the secret of the preparation of the Lechem Hapanim (as did the other various experts approached by the Sages).

The Sages mistakenly interpreted this refusal as an egotistically motivated desire to maintain a monopoly, and they summarily fired the entire Garmu family. They tried to find replacements, other expert bakers from around the world including Alexandria, Egypt, but each time these attempts met with abject failure. The replacement bakers could not duplicate the skill of the Garmus. The Sages saw this as a sign from Above that the Garmu Family had been divinely selected to perform this task, and reinstated them and doubled their salary in recognition of this fact.

The Gemara adds a short anecdote to illustrate how pious the Garmu family were, that they were very strict in observing the prohibition of marit ayin (maintaining appearances). They would never use fine flour to bake their own bread for fear that others may suspect them of using the fine flour from the Lechem Hapanim in the Mikdash for their private use.

Of all the experts the Sages asked to reveal their secret technique, the only ones who agreed were those of the Avtinas family, in charge of preparing the ketoret. Their method was preserved in Pitum HaKetoret in the Gemara (Kritut 6a). When asked why they would not reveal the secret of the Lechem Hapanim, the Garmu Family explained that they did not foresee any benefit this secret recipe would serve in 2000 years of exile (unlike Pitum HaKetoret, which was used repeatedly over the centuries to counter a plague) and that public knowledge of the Lechem Hapanim would lead to unsavory use for idol worship.

When one thinks of “secret societies,” it conjures up negative connotations, but specifically in this case, this secret society of bakers, the Garmu Family, worked purely L’shem Shamayim and for the glory of G-d.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: In the census in Bamidbar, which tribe had the most people and which had the least?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: At the end of Behar, why is the mitzvah of observing Shabbat repeated and “sandwiched” between the prohibition of serving idols and paying respect to the Mikdash? The Or HaChayim (Vayikra 26:2) says that someone who serves idols is breaking the entire Torah. In contrast, if someone observes Shabbat, it is as if they observed the entire Torah. This is not only referring to Shabbat, the seventh day of the week but also to Shemittah, which is also a type of “Shabbat.” Not observing “Shabbat” (or Shemittah) will result in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and exile (Pirkei Avot 5:9).


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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.