Purpose of the Shulchan and Lechem HaPanim


"תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי שֻׁלְחָן"

Parashat Terumah contains the command to build the Tabernacle and its vessels.  After opening with the Ark of the Covenant, the Torah follows with the Table (Shulchan) and Showbread (Lechem HaPanim):


(כג) וְעָשִׂיתָ שֻׁלְחָן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים אַמָּתַיִם אׇרְכּוֹ וְאַמָּה רׇחְבּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי קֹמָתוֹ. (כד) וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב. (כה) וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ מִסְגֶּרֶת טֹפַח סָבִיב וְעָשִׂיתָ זֵר זָהָב לְמִסְגַּרְתּוֹ סָבִיב...

(כט) וְעָשִׂיתָ קְּעָרֹתָיו וְכַפֹּתָיו וּקְשׂוֹתָיו וּמְנַקִּיֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר יֻסַּךְ בָּהֵן זָהָב טָהוֹר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם. (ל) וְנָתַתָּ עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן לֶחֶם פָּנִים לְפָנַי תָּמִיד.

(23) And thou shalt make a table of acacia-wood: two cubits shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. (24) And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and make thereto a crown of gold round about. (25) And thou shalt make unto it a border of a handbreadth round about, and thou shalt make a golden crown to the border thereof round about...

(29) And thou shalt make the dishes thereof, and the pans thereof, and the jars thereof, and the bowls thereof, wherewith to pour out; of pure gold shalt thou make them. (30) And thou shalt set upon the table showbread before Me always.

Though these verses describe the appearance of the Shulchan in great detail, they provide scant information about why there was a need for either it or the bread which was placed on it.  As Hashem has no need for food, why put a table and bread in His sanctuary?  This difficulty was noted by Rambam in Moreh NevukhimMoreh Nevukhim 3:45About R. Moshe b. Maimon, and he leaves it as an unexplained mystery:


הצורך במזבח הקטורת ובמזבח העולה וכלי הקיבול שלהם ברור. אבל איני יודע טעם לשולחן והיות הלחם עליו תמיד. עד היום לא מצאתי למה לייחס אותו. 

The use of the altar for incense and the altar for burnt-offering and their vessels is obvious; but I do not know the object of the table with the bread upon it continually, and up to this day I have not been able to assign any reason to this commandment.

The Shulchan

In investigating the purpose of the Shulchan, it may be helpful to take a closer look at both its place within the Mishkan and the details of its construction:

  • Relationship to other vessels – The laws of the Table are sandwiched between those of the Aron and Menorah, suggesting that they serve as a threesome.  On the other hand, the Table's location within the Outer Sanctum (קודש) of the Mishkan connects it instead to the Menorah and Incense Altar.
  • Secondary utensils – Hashem instructs that the Table should have: "קְּעָרֹתָיו וְכַפֹּתָיו וּקְשׂוֹתָיו וּמְנַקִּיֹּתָיו".  What are the identities and functions of each of these?  Do they form part of the structure of the Table, or are they accompanying utensils used to set the Table or bake the Showbread?  Any which way, what light do they shed on the role of the Table? 
  • Materials and decorations – The Table was constructed from gold plated acacia wood surrounded by a "זֵר זָהָב" (decorative gold molding) and "מִסְגֶּרֶת" (frame).1  Do the molding and frame contribute to the Table's function or are they merely artistic flourishes?2 

The Lechem HaPanim

The laws regarding the Showbread are discussed in Vayikra 24:5-9:


 (ה) וְלָקַחְתָּ סֹלֶת וְאָפִיתָ אֹתָהּ שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה חַלּוֹת שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים יִהְיֶה הַחַלָּה הָאֶחָת. (ו) וְשַׂמְתָּ אוֹתָם שְׁתַּיִם מַעֲרָכוֹת שֵׁשׁ הַמַּעֲרָכֶת עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן הַטָּהֹר לִפְנֵי י"י. (ז) וְנָתַתָּ עַל הַמַּעֲרֶכֶת לְבֹנָה זַכָּה וְהָיְתָה לַלֶּחֶם לְאַזְכָּרָה אִשֶּׁה לַי"י. (ח) בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יַעַרְכֶנּוּ לִפְנֵי י"י תָּמִיד מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּרִית עוֹלָם. (ט) וְהָיְתָה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו וַאֲכָלֻהוּ בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁ כִּי קֹדֶשׁ קׇדָשִׁים הוּא לוֹ מֵאִשֵּׁי י"י חׇק עוֹלָם.

(5) And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth parts of an ephah shall be in one cake. (6) And thou shalt set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the pure table before the Lord. (7) And thou shalt put pure frankincense with each row, that it may be to the bread for a memorial-part, even an offering made by fire unto the Lord. (8) Every Sabbath day he shall set it in order before the Lord continually; it is from the children of Israel, an everlasting covenant. (9) And it shall be for Aaron and his sons; and they shall eat it in a holy place; for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the Lord made by fire, a perpetual due.'

These verses raise a host of questions, the answers to which might shed further light on the vessel and its service as a whole:

  • "לֶחֶם פָּנִים" – Vayikra 24 refers to the loaves as "חַלּוֹת", while Shemot 25 calls them "לֶחֶם פָּנִים".  What is the meaning of each term and what does it teach about the nature of this bread?
  • "שְׁתַּיִם מַעֲרָכוֹת שֵׁשׁ הַמַּעֲרָכֶת עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן" – Is there any significance to the fact that there are specifically twelve loaves or that they are arranged in two sections?
  • "בְּרִית עוֹלָם" – None of the other rites that take place in the Tabernacle are described as a "בְּרִית עוֹלָם"‎.3  What does the term mean and why is it used only by the Lechem HaPanim?
  • "וְהָיְתָה לַלֶּחֶם לְאַזְכָּרָה" – The לְבֹנָה (frankincense) is designated to be a memorial ("אַזְכָּרָה").  But what is it supposed to commemorate?
  • "בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת יַעַרְכֶנּוּ" – Why are the loaves arranged on Shabbat specifically?
  • "וְהָיְתָה לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו" – Why is the bread eaten by the priests rather than being sacrificed to Hashem?  Moreover, what is meant by the explanation "כִּי קֹדֶשׁ קׇדָשִׁים הוּא"?