Twelve cakes of bread that were placed on a table in the Holy compartment of the tabernacle or temple and that were replaced with fresh ones each Sabbath. (Ex 35:13; 39:36; 1Ki 7:48; 2Ch 13:11; Ne 10:32, 33) The literal Hebrew designation for the showbread is the “bread of the face.” The word for “face” sometimes denotes “presence” (2Ki 13:23), and so the showbread was in front of Jehovah’s face as an offering before him constantly. (Ex 25:30, ftn) The showbread is also referred to as “layer bread” (2Ch 2:4), “loaves of presentation” (Mr 2:26), and simply “the loaves” (Heb 9:2).
The Kohathites were responsible to bake the showbread “sabbath by sabbath,” as well as to transport it when the tabernacle was moved. (Nu 4:7; 1Ch 9:32) Each of the 12 ring-shaped cakes was made of two omers (0.2 ephah; equal to 4.4 L or 4 dry qt) of fine flour, and according to Josephus, no leaven was used. (Jewish Antiquities, III, 142 [vi, 6]) On the Sabbath the old loaves were removed from the table of showbread on the N side of the Holy (Ex 26:35) and replaced with 12 fresh ones. The cakes were stacked in two piles consisting of six loaves or layers each. Pure frankincense was put on each stack. Jewish tradition has it that the frankincense was put in golden vessels and not directly on the cakes. When the showbread was removed on the Sabbath, the frankincense is said to have been burned on the altar.
The old loaves were something most holy, having been in the Holy before Jehovah for a week, and were to be eaten by the Aaronic priests in a holy place, evidently somewhere in the sanctuary precincts. (Le 24:9) There is only one recorded instance in Biblical history regarding the use of the old loaves by non-Aaronites. When David was fleeing from Saul, he requested bread for himself and his men from Ahimelech the high priest. As Ahimelech had no “ordinary bread,” he gave David loaves of showbread that had been replaced. But the high priest, believing that David was on a mission for the king, did this only after being assured that David and his men were ceremonially clean. (1Sa 21:1-6) Jesus Christ referred to this incident when the Pharisees objected to his disciples’ plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath.