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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Loaves of Proposition

Heb. "bread of the faces", i.e. "bread of the presence (of Yahweh)" (Ex., xxxv, 13; xxxix, 35, etc.), also called "holy bread" (I Kings, xxi, 6), "bread of piles" (I Par., ix, 32; xxiii, 29), "continual bread" (Num., iv, 7), or simply "bread" (Heb. Version, Ex., xi, 23). In the Greek text we have various renderings, the most frequent being 'ártoi tês prothéseos, "loaves of the setting forth" (Ex., xxxv, 13; xxxix, 35, etc.) which the Latin Vulgate also adopts in its uniform translation panes propositionis, whence the English expression "loaves of proposition", as found in the Douay and Reims versions (Ex., xxxv, 13, etc.; Matt., xii, 4; Mark, ii, 26; Luke, vi, 4). The Protestant versions have "shewbread" (cf. Schaubrot of German versions), with the marginal "presence-bread".

In the account of David's flight from Saul, as found in I Kings, xxi, 6, we are told that David went to Nobe, to the high priest Achimelech, whom he asked for a few loaves of bread for himself and for his companions. Having been assured that the men were legally clean, the high priest gave them "hallowed bread: for there was no bread there, but only the loaves of proposition, which had been taken away from the face of the Lord, that hot loaves might be set up". The loaves of bread spoken of here formed the most important sacrificial offering prescribed by the Mosaic Law. They were prepared from the finest flour, passed through seven sieves, two-tenths of an ephod (about four-fifths of a peck) in each, and without leaven (Lev., xxiv, 5; Josephus, "Antiq.", III, vi, 6; x, 7). According to Jewish tradition they were prepared in a special room by the priests who were appointed every week. In I Par., ix, 32, we read that some of the sons of Caath (Kohathites) were in charge of preparing and baking the loaves. The Bible gives us no data as to the form or shape of the individual loaves, but, according to the Mishna (Men., xi, 4; Yad, Tamid, v. 9), they were ten fingers in length, five in breadth, and with rims or upturned edges of seven fingers in length. Twelve of these loaves were arranged in two piles, of six loaves each, and while still hot placed on the "table of proposition" (Num., iv, 7) or "most clean table" (Lev., xxiv, 6) made of settim-wood and overlaid with gold. The dimensions of the table were two cubits (three feet) long, one cubit broad and one and a half cubit high (Ex., xxv, 23. Cf. III Kings, vii, 48; I Par., xxviii, 16; II Par., iv, 19; xiii, 11). The table with the loaves of bread was then placed in the tabernacle or temple before the Ark of the Covenant, there to remain "always" in the presence of the Lord (Ex., xxv, 30; Num., iv, 7). According to the Talmud, the loaves were not allowed to touch one another, and, to prevent contact, hollow golden tubes, twenty-eight in number, were placed between them, which thus permitted the air to circulate freely between the loaves. Together with the loaves of proposition, between the two piles or, according to others, above them, were two vessels of gold filled with frankincense and, according to the Septuagint, salt also (Lev., xxiv, 7; Siphra, 263, 1). The twelve loaves were to be renewed every Sabbath; fresh, hot loaves taking the place of the stale loaves, which belonged "to Aaron and his sons, that they may eat them in the holy place" (Lev., xxiv, 8, 9. Cf. I Par., xxiii, 29; Matt., xii, 4, etc.). According to the Talmud four priests removed the old loaves together with the incense every Sabbath, and four other priests brought in fresh loaves with new incense. The old loaves were divided among the incoming and outgoing priests, and were to be consumed by them within the sacred precincts of the sanctuary. The old incense was burnt. The expense of preparing the loaves was borne by the temple treasury (I Par., ix, 26 and 32). Symbolically, the twelve loaves represented the higher life of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bread was the ordinary symbol of life, and the hallowed bread signified a superior life because it was ever in the presence of Yahweh and destined for those specially consecrated to His service. The incense was a symbol of the praise due to Yahweh.

EDERSHEIM,The Temple and Its Service (London, 1874), 152-57; KENNEDY in HASTINGS, Dict. of the Bible, s. v. Shewbread; LESÉTRE in VIGOROUX, Dict. de la Bible, iv, 1957; GEFFERT in Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. Shewbread.