Showing the world the showbread

Baker Les Saidel was entranced by the Biblical showbread – the 12 loaves of unleavened bread in the Tabernacle and later in the Holy Temple.

Mystery of the Temple’s ancient breads: Les Saidel presents the final product, according to Rebi Hanina – the ‘teiva prutza’ (box without a lid). (photo credit: SHANON NUSZEN)
Mystery of the Temple’s ancient breads: Les Saidel presents the final product, according to Rebi Hanina – the ‘teiva prutza’ (box without a lid).
(photo credit: SHANON NUSZEN)
Les Saidel wants to rebuild the Temple with love, peace – and bread.
Tall, lanky, and cheerful, Saidel, 54, together with his wife Sheryl, has been baking artisan breads, cakes and pastries at their bakery since 2008, delivering them weekly to customers in Ra’anana, Beit Shemesh, Modi’in, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim. Today, though, he devotes much of his time to the mystery of the ancient breads used in the Temple.
Saidel, who moved to Israel in 1985 from Johannesburg and writes the “In the Grain” column for In Jerusalem, was a third-year optometry student in South Africa when he was bitten by the computer bug and decided to become a programmer. His career lasted until the 2008 financial crisis, when his overseas assignments ended. At age 44, he had to find a new vocation.
“After months of searching without finding a suitable job,” he says, “we realized we had to do something drastic. We decided to go into a completely different line of work.”
Saidel, for whom baking had been a longtime hobby, opened a bakery in his home town of Karnei Shomron. The bakery, he explains, was intended to be a “niche bakery that would sell organic healthy breads.” Saidel built a 20-ton brick oven in the back of his home, added shelving and plumbing, and Saidel’s Artisan Baking Institute was born. Some 10 years in, he says, “I love it. This is my life.”
FIVE YEARS ago, the Saidels decided to add baking workshops to their business repertoire, offering workshops on halla and Hanukkah donut baking. They found planning and conducting workshops to be not only easier than baking bread but also more profitable. Yet, something was missing.
“Other than the halla workshop, we didn’t have anything that was Jewish-related. Everything was general baking.”
However, after reading Bar Ilan University Prof. Zohar Amar’s The Five Species of Grain, which discusses the cultural and religious significance of bread in the ancient world, Saidel saw a new avenue for development.
“I knew about bagels and bialys. I knew that halla came from Germany around the 15th century, but I had very little exposure to the authentic breads from the Temple and I didn’t really know much about them. This was an eye-opener to me, and I started reading and studying more.”
Saidel was entranced by the lehem hapanim (showbread) – the 12 loaves of unleavened bread that were baked each week and placed on the shulhan (Golden Table) in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. The showbread was baked on Friday and eaten eight days later by the priests on the following Sabbath. The loaves had an unusual shape, and even though they remained on the Golden Table for a full week, they remained fresh. They had to be prepared and baked quickly because they were unleavened, like matzah.
Each loaf was quite substantial, weighing between three and four kilos, according to some opinions, and as much as seven kilos according to others.
According to tradition, the Garmu family managed the baking process, ensuring that the bread was prepared properly. The work of baking, preparing and removing the showbread from the ovens required great skill, and the Garmu clan kept their trade secrets within the family. Saidel says, “I came to the realization that if I’m a Jewish baker and don’t know about the lehem hapanim, something is wrong, because it is the iconic bread of the Jewish people.”
SAIDEL BEGAN to try to unravel the mysteries of the showbread. How could this unleavened bread, baked without yeast, rise properly? What was the shape of the loaves? How did the bread stay fresh for nine days?
“I took everything that I’d learned from my computer programming, nutrition and baking experience and plugged all these things into the research of the showbread. It all contributes to it. You need baking science, cereal chemistry, geometry and computer-aided design to try to get the correct shape of the bread. All of the disciplines that I learned over the decades helped me.”
Saidel mentions a famous debate between Talmudic authorities as to the exact shape of this mysterious bread. One authority said it was shaped like an open box; another rabbi maintained that it had the shape of a “dancing ship.” Based on the design on perutah coins minted by Mattathias Antigonus II, the last of the Hasmonean kings, in 42 BCE, which depicts the golden table with the showbreads stacked on it, Saidel feels that the shape was similar to that of a U-shaped “dancing ship” with a curved bottom, rather than that of a V-shaped frame with a pointed bottom.
“The freshness question depends on two things,” Saidel explains. “If you use the same flour that we use today – soft wheat – it becomes stale much quicker. If you use the ancient, hard wheat – durum wheat – it has a much longer shelf life.”
“In addition, they must have added some kind of acidic component, probably related to sodium bicarbonate, to both influence the rising – because when you combine sodium bicarbonate with some kind of acids, it bubbles – and also to preserve it.”
Saidel says that he can now keep the bread mold-free for seven days, but has not yet managed to retain full freshness over that period of time.
Saidel consulted extensively with Prof. Amar in all of his research and has been offering a “Breads of the Beit Hamikdash” workshop since last summer. The workshop offers participants the opportunity to mix, shape, smell, bake and eat some of the breads used in the Temple service, including the types of breads that were offered as part of the korban todah (thanksgiving offering), the sh’tei halechem (two breads) of the Shavuot offering, and, of course, the lehem hapanim. He reports that thousands of participants – Jewish and non-Jewish – from around the world have attended.
“I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to researching the lehem hapanim, teaching the people about the service in the Temple and trying to awaken the people into rebuilding the third Temple the right way,” says Saidel. “You have to do it with love and peace – not by provoking and creating strife, but by creating unity and love.”
If there is one thing that just about everyone can agree on, it’s the pleasantness of the smell and the taste of warm, fresh bread.