Showbread, shewbread, or presence bread are bread cakes or loaves that were arranged in two piles or rows on a special table in the Temple of Jerusalem. Twelve pieces of showbread were always on display in the presence of Yahweh or God and replaced on the Sabbath with a fresh batch. The previous week’s bread was then eaten in a sacred place by the priests. This offering was baked with flour, but the actual recipe was well guarded by the priests and remains elusive.
Exodus 25:30 requires that showbread be permanently on display in the presence of God. Leviticus 24: 5-6 describes the bread as a dozen cakes or loaves baked with fine flour that are placed on a table in piles or rows before God. Cups of frankincense were placed on top of each pile or row of shewbread as a memorial. Other Biblical books like the Book of Chronicles, Book of Samuel, and Book of Kings also mention aspects of this offering.
The bread was left on display for a week and then replaced with new loaves on the Sabbath so that the offering was always fresh. The loaves were probably prepared the day before the Sabbath. As the bread was considered to be holy, the priests were permitted to eat the old loaves in a holy place. The priests’ right to consume the showbread was not exclusive. In 1 Samuel 21: 4-6 it is told that a priest gave an old loaf to David in Nob.
Biblical regulations specify that the bread must be placed on a table located in the sanctuary’s northern section. Between this table and the Menorah sits the Altar of Incense. Some sources claim that the table was made of solid gold, while others state that it was gold-plated acacia wood. The table was portable and was covered with a bluish-purple cloth while being moved.
The showbread custom was not unique to the Israelite community. The Babylonians and Assyrians also offered 12 (or a multiple of 12) cakes or loaves on tables before their gods. It is not certain what the religious significance the number 12 held for these cultures. The Babylonian cakes were made with wheat flour like showbread but were also required to be sweetened.
It is thought that these three customs developed independently.The root idea was the same, however: Food should always be present before a deity so that it could be consumed whenever he decided to appear. The burning of incense rather than the bread itself indicates to some researchers that the custom’s origins are buried in antiquity.
The original recipe for showbread is not known because preparation stopped when the temple was destroyed in approximately 70 CE. Even though it was not displayed on the altar, it is likely that the bread was unleavened because it was brought into the inner sanctuary. There has been some research into possible techniques and ingredients and two shapes. It possible that the tradition of serving the leaven braided challah bread on the Sabbath and holy days is a reminder of the showbread ritual.