As described in Exodus 25 (read in synagogues last Saturday) and Leviticus 24, twelve loaves of bread were supposed to be placed on a special table in the inner sanctum of the Temple every Friday, which would then be eaten by the priests on the Sabbath of the following week. Les Saidel, a South African-born Israeli baker, has been working to recreate these loaves—known as the leḥem ha-panim or “showbread”—according to talmudic specifications. Alan Rosenbaum describes Saidel’s efforts:
The loaves had an unusual shape, and even though they remained on the golden table for a full week, they stayed fresh. They had to be prepared and baked quickly because they were unleavened, like matzah. Each loaf was quite substantial, weighing about seven or eight pounds according to some opinions, and as much as fifteen pounds according to others.
According to tradition, the Garmu family managed the baking process, ensuring that the bread was prepared properly. The work of baking, preparing, and removing the showbread from the ovens required great skill, and the Garmu clan kept their trade secrets within the family. . . .
[There is a] debate between talmudic authorities as to the exact shape of this mysterious bread. One authority said it was shaped like an open box; another rabbi maintained that it had the shape of a “dancing ship.” Based on the design found on coins minted by Mattathias Antigonus II, the last of the Hasmonean kings, in 42 BCE, which depict the golden table with the showbreads stacked on it, Saidel feels that the shape was similar to that of a U-shaped “dancing ship” with a curved bottom, rather than that of a V-shaped frame with a pointed bottom.
“The freshness question depends on two things,” Saidel explains. “If you use the same flour that we use today—soft wheat—it becomes stale much quicker. If you use the ancient, hard wheat—durum wheat—it has a much longer shelf life.”