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The Avodah Blog

A Labor Economy of Freshness and Wealth: The Meaning of the Lechem Panim — D’var Torah for Parashat Teruma

Our parashah brings the first big, detailed list of regulations for precisely how to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), its decorations, and the items used in this portable sanctuary. On the north side of the Mishkan, in front of the altar, stood a table, and on that table rested bread, as the Torah says, “And on the table you shall set the lechem panim before Me always” (Sh’mot/Exodus 25:30). Often translated as “bread of display” or “showbread”, the words literally mean “face bread”. Vayikra/Leviticus 24:5-9 fills in that this bread, which sat on the table in the Mishkan continuously, consisted of twelve loaves, arranged in two piles, which the kohanim (priests) would place there on Shabbat, where it would sit, with burning frankincense, for a week, until being replaced by a new batch the next Shabbat. At that time, the kohanim departing their week-long shift and those starting the next one would eat the old batch. What is the significance of bread sitting in constant presence before the altar, why is it called “face bread”, and what is the significance of changing it weekly, on Shabbat?

The Mishna (Menachot 5:1) explains that the lechem panim, like most other bread offerings, was matzah, so fear not that these kohanim had to eat stale, moldy bread. Even so, the Talmud takes special care to highlight that not only did the bread not rot, but that freshness was a chief characteristic: “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that a great miracle was done with the lechem hapanim: as it was in its placement, so it was in its removal” (Talmud Bavli, Chagigah 26b).  Rashi (1040-1105, France) interprets this to mean that it remained hot the entire week, while Tosafot (Rashi’s grandsons and their disciples) argue that the miracle was that the showbread remained soft all week: either way, the face bread was always fresh.

In another Talmudic passage, Rabbi Yitzhak taught that one who wishes to become rich should turn to the north, while one who wished to become wise should turn to the south. The symbol to remember this is that the table with the face bread, was in the north, while the shining menorah/candelabrum, was in the south of the Mishkan (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 25b; the geographic layout is specified in the Torah, Sh’mot/Exodus 26:35). Rabbi Yitzhak’s purpose may have been cheeky social commentary or sober recognition of the hard choices and limited resources for 3rd-4th Century Jews in the Roman-occupied Land of Israel: opportunities for livelihood existed only in the north, the Galilee, where he lived, but Torah wisdom remained centered in the south, in Jerusalem. For our purposes, the face bread symbolizes wealth

Bread displays were universal in Ancient Near Eastern cultures, but in all of them, the bread was changed daily, suggesting that its purpose was to feed the god(s). For Israel, it was changed weekly. Moreover, while at least part of all other bread offerings was consumed on the altar, these loaves merely sat there for the whole week. Scholars understand that Israel, then, took a familiar practice and totally undercut its familiar meaning. Instead of feeding God, the bread represented Israel’s presence before God. The requirement for twelve loaves corresponded to the twelve tribes of Israel, just like the twelve stones on the High Priest’s breastplate. That is, the face bread should signify that the whole of the Jewish people is there in the Temple, before God. Indeed, the Mishna (Shekalim 4:1) teaches that the money to pay for the lechem panim came from taxes paid equally by everyone. Human beings, who cannot come to the Temple because they busily toil for their daily bread, contribute bread, their basic sustenance, to face God constantly as their proxy. This replacement has the function of saying to God, “Consider the whole people as standing before You through their labor.” Labor is not a problem, an obstacle before living a true religious life of constant, devotional presence; it is through our labor — all labor, by everyone — that we achieve presence before our Creator. This symbolism infuses all labor with sacred value and also forces us to consider misconduct, abuses of the law, exploitation in the labor arena to be not just civil crimes but sacral desecration, as well. We are present before God by laboring in justice and equality.

This is true wealth: dignified labor, an economy in which everyone is represented equally, like those twelve identical loaves. One who wishes to become wealthy should not learn from all the silver and gold accumulated, but from the table holding the twelve loaves of bread representing working people. It is in this arrangement of balance that the bread remains fresh constantly, throughout its life, not just at its beginning, before growing stale or rotten. The bread stands before God tamid/constantly, always, a word echoed in our morning liturgy in the theological assertion that “the Blessed, Holy One renews, every day, constantly/tamid, the works of creation”. As works of God, we are always, constantly, new and fresh. That is theologically and philosophically true. Burnout, brokenness, and decline are results, then, of violent interruptions, deprivations of our true essences. The freshness is never beaten out of this bread, which models our presence in sacred dignity. The bread stays fresh, from shabbat to shabbat, through those workdays when it is so easy to become mechanized through habit, routine, and exploitation. Resist, say the Rabbis: look north, to the lechem ha-panim. Be rich, embrace your bounty, proliferate wealth through labor grounded in solidarity and equality.

The Talmud (Berakhot 12a) teaches that on Shabbat, when the kohen shifts would switch, the departing kohanim would say to the entering kohanim, “May the One whose name dwells in this house, cause to dwell among you love and fraternity, peace and friendship.” They said this after dramatically removing the old lechem panim and replacing it with the new, articulating the values that have enabled that face bread to stay fresh and to symbolize wealth. All that’s left is for us to implement them in our labor economy.

Shabbat shalom.

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