Demonstration of lechem hapanim and Temple storage. (Credit: Eliana Rudee/Breaking Israel News)

By Eliezer Meir Saidel
Machon Lechem HaPanim, Israel

In the Mishnah (Shekalim 5:1) it lists 15 “memunim” (appointees) who were in charge of the various activities of the Beit HaMikdash during the period of Bayit Sheini. Thirteen of those listed were individuals and the remaining two were families, Beit Garmu, in charge of the lechem ha’panim, and Beit Avtinas, in charge of the ketoret.

It is uncertain whether the family’s name is pronounced Garmu; the Hebrew גרמו could just as well be Garmo, Gramu, Gramo, or Gremu. It has become accepted to pronounce it as Beit Garmu. Professor Zohar Amar, dean of Land of Israel Studies, Bar-Ilan University, has a theory that the name is derived from the Latin word “gremium” which means “p’nim” or “inner.”

Beit Garmu was a family of Levi’im descended from Kehat ben Levi. The family of Kehat was allotted the task of carrying the Shulchan (amongst other things) in the Midbar (Bamidbar 4:7). Their involvement also extended to actually baking the lechem ha’panim (Divrei HaYamim I, 9:32). The Garmu family inherited the intricate art of baking this special bread from their ancestors, passed down orally from generation to generation. As we will soon see, it was not only their exceptional expertise as bakers that landed them the job — it was also their elevated level of ruchniyut and devotion to HKB’H and Am Yisrael.

Beit Garmu consisted of phenomenal bakers. In Pirkei Avot (5:5) it lists ten miracles that occurred in the Beit HaMikdash, one of which was that “never was there found a p’sul in the lechem ha’panim.” The lechem ha’panim were extremely complex in all aspects of their preparation: mixing the ingredients, shaping the intricate shapes, timing of the baking, removal from the oven and post-bake handling. As a professional, artisan baker for over four decades, I can personally attest to the fact that to be able to churn out 12 complicated loaves such as these, week after week for hundreds of years, and never have even the minutest flaw, is unprecedented and obviously miraculous. To be worthy of such a miracle, Beit Garmu had to be exceptional bakers, able to make maximum hishtadlut, and also great tzaddikim.

Together with the other appointees, the Garmu family was paid a salary for their work from the terumat ha’lishkah, the kupah of the machatzit ha’shekel donated by Am Yisrael for the running of the Beit HaMikdash. Although they basically worked one day a week (the lechem ha’panim were baked every erev Shabbat, unless it was a yom tov, in which case it would be on erev yom tov), their remuneration was substantial. We learn from a Gemara (Yoma 38a) that they received a daily wage of 12 maneh (chachamim) or 24 maneh (R’ Yehuda). A maneh is equal to 100 silver (Roman) dinars. Just to give you an idea of the value of that salary, a liter of (regular) wine during that period cost ¼ dinar. With their weekly salary, the Garmus could purchase 4,800 liters of wine (9,600 according to R’ Yehuda). Their annual salary was 52 weeks X 1,200 = 62,400 dinars (124,800 according to R’ Yehuda). It is recorded that King Herod, a multi-billionaire, collected approximately 1 million dinars in tax revenue from the entire population annually. Beit Garmu’s salary was about 6.5% of that (13% according to R’ Yehuda). It is not known how many souls that supported, but by all counts it is an astronomical salary for only one day’s work a week!

One might think, l’ch’ora, that trying to reduce public expenditure was the primary motivation of the chachamim in the famous story in the Gemara (Yoma 38a) when they tried to replace Beit Garmu. The Gemara lists two families and two individuals (quoting Mishnah Yoma 3:11) in a derogatory context. The first is “Of Beit Garmu who were unwilling to teach about the making of the lechem ha’panim.”

This secret, handed down through the generations, was zealously guarded by the Garmu family and they would not reveal it to anyone, including the poskei ha’dor, the chachamim.

The chachamim obviously found this unacceptable, and when Beit Garmu refused to budge, they tried to replace them by importing expert Egyptian (non-Jewish) bakers from Alexandria to bake the lechem ha’panim. As the story goes in the Gemara, these Alexandrian bakers failed miserably and could not duplicate the quality of Beit Garmu. The lechem ha’panim needed to remain fresh the entire week while it was on the Shulchan from Shabbat to Shabbat, and the attempts by the Alexandrian bakers went moldy after a few short days.

These Alexandrian bakers were regarded as world experts in baking at the time, like the French are today, and if they could not succeed, nobody could. The chachamim had no choice but to humbly go back to Beit Garmu and re-hire them, in addition to having to agree to double their wages!

The whole story in Yoma is a little strange, and in order to fully understand it we need to fill in some gaps.

Firstly, money was never an issue here. Nowhere in the Mishnah or the Gemara do the chachamim even mention money. The only mention of money is when the chachamim agreed to double Beit Garmu’s salary at the end of the story.

Neither was monopoly an issue. At no point did the chachamim object to Beit Garmu having a monopoly on the lechem ha’panim. The language of the Mishnah is interesting. It begins in a peculiar way “Of Beit Garmu, של בית גרמו.” This seems to imply that the chachamim are admitting and acknowledging that Beit Garmu has some kind of kinyan (proprietary rights) to the lechem ha’panim franchise.

The only gripe the chachamim had with Beit Garmu is that they were a “secret society” and would not reveal (or even record) the method of how the lechem ha’panim were made. They feared that if Beit Garmu would not reveal the secret to them so it could be recorded for posterity, it would be lost. Their fears were indeed confirmed when Bayit Sheini was destroyed. Unlike the family in charge of the ketoret (Beit Avtinas, mentioned in the same Mishnah in Yoma), who eventually did reveal their secret and it was recorded in Masechet Keritut 6a – Pitum HaKetoret, the secret of the lechem ha’panim was lost.

It appears the chachamim initially suspected Beit Garmu’s motivation behind not revealing their secret and therefore tried to replace them. Only when there was clear Divine intervention and the Alexandrian bakers failed were the chachamim’s suspicions allayed. It is reminiscent of another Mishnah in Yoma recounting the preparations of the kohen gadol for avodat Yom Kippur, that the chachamim were “porshim v’bochim,” as was the kohen gadol — the chachamim cried because they unjustifiably suspected the kohen gadol for being unworthy and the kohen gadol cried because they suspected him unjustly.

When the Alexandrian bakers failed, the chachamim admitted “Kol mah she’bara HKB’H lichvodo bara,” that everything HKB’H created was for His own glory. They were admitting that Beit Garmu was a supernatural phenomenon. To publicly publicize their error of suspecting Beit Garmu’s scruples, they doubled their salary, even though it was already astronomical. To the chachamim it was fitting that the family in charge of making the lechem ha’panim, which symbolized material wealth, should themselves have vast material wealth.

The Gemara goes on to reveal what great tzaddikim Beit Garmu comprised. They would never allow any of their family members to eat bread made with clean “solet” flour, so that no one would ever suspect them of using the solet from the Beit HaMikdash for their own private use. They were super-makpid with mar’it ayin and being “neki’im b’einei Elokim v’adam.”

After the episode with the failure of the Alexandrian bakers, Beit Garmu revealed why they would not divulge their secret of the lechem ha’panim. They explained they had a tradition from their ancestors that Bayit Sheini was about to be destroyed and they did not want the secret of the lechem ha’panim to fall into the wrong hands and be used for nefarious purposes of avodah zarah, chas v’shalom.

Why, then, did they not simply tell the chachamim this at the outset and prevent the whole misunderstanding? If they had, there was a slim chance that the chachamim may still have suspected their motives, but after a clear sign from Above, when the Alexandrian bakers failed, there could be no doubt. Perhaps because they were from the family of Kehat, they were traumatized by one of their ancestors, Korach, and learned the lesson that only Divine intervention (Aharon’s staff flowering) could finally put any suspicion to rest, and they therefore resorted to this path of action.

The end of this story in the Mishnah is that the chachamim, in reference to Beit Garmu (and Beit Avtinas), concluded with “zecher tzaddik l’vrachah,” exonerating them from all suspicion and confirming their elevated spiritual status.

Another “sad” conclusion of the story is that the secret of the lechem ha’panim was indeed lost with Churban Bayit Sheini. Obviously, HKB’H intended it to be so. Perhaps the reason was because Beit Garmu were such big tzaddikim that HKB’H wanted to protect them and not make them “accessories” to avodah zarah.

It is interesting that another individual mentioned in that Mishnah in Yoma, Hugras ben Levi, another of the 15 appointees mentioned above who was in charge of the Levi’im choir singers, would also not reveal their secret training methods and vocal skills to the chachamim (in his case it was for selfish reasons). Historically, it appears that he did not merit the same Divine protection by association because it is very likely that early Christianity copied their music and liturgy from the Beit HaMikdash and have been using it for avodah zarah ever since.

Beit Avtinas were coupled by the chachamim with Beit Garmu in the category of tzaddikim, and even though they revealed the secret of the ketoret, it merited the same Divine protection from any link to avodah zarah, like the lechem ha’panim, because they, too, were tzaddikim. Perhaps HKB’H intended that the secret of the ketoret be revealed because over the centuries it has been a kind of a “secret weapon” and used numerous times by Am Yisrael against a mageifah (plague).

In my many years of researching and trying to reproduce the lechem ha’panim in our institute, with the full arsenal of modern science and technology at our disposal, we still have not managed to achieve the results of Beit Garmu from over 2,000 years ago (although we have had many breakthroughs and have made much progress). This attests to the incredible, unsurpassed professional skill and knowledge Beit Garmu possessed, and, more than that, the great level of kedushah they had by which they merited nissim geluyim.

Yehi ratzon that we should be zocheh to merit once again seeing the kohanim switching the stacks of lechem ha’panim on the Shulchan, midei Shabbat b’Shabbato, b’meheirah b’yameinu. Amen.

Eliezer Meir Saidel, a master artisan baker, lives with his wife and four children in Karnei Shomron, Israel. He is the director of Machon Lechem HaPanim, which is dedicated to researching and experimenting with the lechem ha’panim, trying to duplicate the quality of Beit Garmu. The results of this groundbreaking research are periodically published on the institute’s website, MachonLechemHapanim.org.

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