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The Mystery of the Garmu Family

The story of the Garmu family, who were in charge of preparing the Showbread during the period of the 2nd Temple is known to all. But who were the Garmu family really? And what is their true story?

Source of the name Garmu

The first time the Garmu’s are mentioned is in the Talmud, Tractate Yoma (38a) where their name appears as follows – גרמו. There is uncertainty exactly how the word גרמו is pronounced. Unlike the family who prepared the Incense Offering, the אבטינס  Avtinas family, whose pronunciation is straightforward, how does one pronounce גרמו ? Is it Garmu, or Garmo, or Gramu, or Gramo? Since the original Talmudic text does not include vowels, the pronunciation is uncertain. The common consensus is Garmu, but it is not entirely clear on what that is based.

There is a theory that their name was derived from the Latin word Gremium, translated as “inwardness” (Prof. Zohar Amar, The Showbread, Real and Historical Aspects, ‘Maalin Bakodesh’ 17 Adar 2009). According to this hypothesis, the pronunciation should be Gramu or Gramo.


The Garmu Family lineage

Were the Garmus Priests, Levites or Israelites?

In the Talmud Tractate Menahot (95b) it states “The Two Loaves Offering and the Showbread were both kneaded and shaped outside but baked inside”.

From this we learn that the preparation of the Showbread was divided into two stages, a. kneading and shaping “outside” the Temple courtyard (Azara) and b. baking “inside” the Temple courtyard. If the task of the Garmu family was simply to knead and shape the bread, then they could have been simple Israelites. Only Priests and Levites were allowed within the Temple courtyard confines.

However in Tractate Yoma (38a) it states “The Garmu Family were adept in the matter of the Showbread and they did not want to teach others. The sages brought expert Alexandrian bakers who knew how to bake like them, but they didn’t know how to remove the bread from the oven like them”.

From here it is clear that the Garmus’ actually baked the bread, which took place in a a building called Beit Hamoked in a room(s) on the south end called “Lishkat Osei Lechem Hapanim” (Tractate Middot 1:5) which opened into the Temple courtyard, so they could not have been Israelites.

Narrowing it down further, were they Priests or Levites?

In the Tabernacle the sons of Kehat the Levite were entrusted with carrying the Shulchan (Table) and its components. But this was not the full extent of their duties –

And some of their brethren of the sons of the Kehat, in charge of preparing the Showbread for every Sabbath” (1 Chronicles 9:32).

This clearly states that the bakers of the Showbread were Levites, sons of Kehat, the same group that was in charge of the Showbread Table and its components. Incidentally in the previous verse (1 Chronicles 9:31) it refers to another prominent, frequent  Meal Offering  (Chavitin) and also here the bakers were stipulated as Levites. From this we learn that the expert bakers in the Temple were actually Levites and not the Priests.

The Garmu family was therefore a family of Levites.


The dispute between the Garmu Family and the Sages

The Garmus’ were listed amongst the 15 appointees of the Temple (Tractate Shekalim 5:1), officials with special duties and possessing great proficiency and skill. Their salary was paid from the Trumat Halishka, a special fund of half shekels donated by the people of Israel, i.e public funds.

Their salary is recorded (Tractate Yoma 38a), according to one opinion (sages) their daily wage  was 12 “Maneh” (1200 Dinars) and according to R. Yehuda, 24 “Maneh” (2400 Dinars). 1 “Maneh” = 100 silver Dinars. Their work took place on one day of the week (the Showbread were prepared and baked every Friday), therefore their daily wage was also their weekly wage. Their annual income (52 weeks) was therefore 62400 Dinars (sages) or according to R. Yehuda, 124800 Dinars.

To understand the value of such a salary in today’s terms – a liter of regular wine in that period (the Roman period) was a quarter of a Dinar. With 1200 Dinars, the Garmus’ could purchase 4800 liters of wine a week (9600 according to R. Yehuda).  Another example. King Herod was a very rich man, a multi billionaire by today’s standards. Herod’s annual income from taxes from the entire kingdom was about 1 million Dinar. Therefore the Garmu’s annual income was 6.42% (12.84% according to R. Yehuda) of this sum.

In return for their work preparing the Showbread in the Temple, working only one day a week, the Garmu’s received an enormously high salary. It is not known how many members of the family this salary supported, but this is a high-end salary by any standards.

From this one might think that the Sages were prompted to replace the Garmu Family based on financial considerations, to save public funds. In Tractate Yoma 38a it states –

And these in a derogatory context, that of the Garmu Family for not agreeing to teach how to bake the Showbread…etc.

One might think that the Sages approached the Garmu’s and asked them to teach others their art to try reduce public expenditure.

The language used in the Talmud is interesting.  If the assumption is as above that the consideration was financially based, it should have said “the Garmu Family for not agreeing to teach how to bake the Showbread…etc.” Why then does it say “that of” the Garmu Family etc. It appears that the Mishna and the Talmud admit that the task of baking the Showbread “belonged” to the Garmu Family, perhaps because of tribal rights, that they were descendants of the Kehat Family of Levites, or  perhaps because they had acquired this position through generations of expertise and practice, or perhaps because of their high spiritual level, or perhaps a combination of all of the above.

In Tractate Avot (5:5) is states –

Ten miracles occurred to our fathers in the Temple …. (one of which was) Never was a fault found in the Omer, the Two Loaves or the Showbread.

To bake 12 complex loaves of Showbread (the entire process was complicated, from the preparation of the dough, to the shaping, to the baking, to the removal from the pans, etc.) every week, for generations and never find a fault in any of them demands a. great skill and proficiency and b. a lot of Divine assistance. As someone who has many years of commercial baking under his belt I can attest to the fact that this is unprecedented.

It is clear that a miracle and Divine intervention was involved and that G-d would not have assisted anyone who was not worthy of it. The Garmu family was obviously worthy and very pious. The continuation in Tractate Yoma (38a) states – “And on this they were remembered in a positive context: never was there found in their private family use, bread made from “clean” flour, lest people should say ‘They are using the holy Showbread flour for their own personal use’. 

The Garmu Family was exceedingly pious and went to great lengths not to arouse public suspicion (Mar'it Ayin). Although they could obviously afford high quality flour, like that used for the Showbread, they purposely chose to use lower quality flour to make their own personal bread.

Apparently the dispute between the Sages and the Garmus’ was never about money. If it was about saving public funds, the Talmud should have stated “The Garmu Family for not agreeing to a salary cut”.  However the original and only gripe of the Sages was that the Garmu Family would not teach others how to make the Showbread. The sages obviously thought that the enormously high salary of the Garmus’  was justified and reflected their spiritual and professional standing. In fact the opposite, the fact that the Garmus’ were rich correlated with the symbolism of the Showbread which reflected material abundance and livelihood and who better to represent that than the makers of the Showbread themselves, which they did with great skill and professionalism.

The source of their dispute was something else entirely. The Sages originally thought that the secret of the Showbread preparation should not be a secret at all, but common knowledge.  As long as you have only a small group that is privy to the secret, you run the risk of it being lost, as indeed it was when the 2nd Temple was destroyed. The Sages misunderstood the refusal of the Garmus' to reveal their secret and attributed it to trying to maintain a monopoly on Showbread production, like a cartel. Therefore their first instinct was to try forcefully break the monopoly.  Only after their failed attempt with the Alexandrian bakers and the Garmus’ revealing their motivation for not wanting to publicize the secret of the Showbread preparation –

They knew from their forefathers, who had a premonition that the Temple was going to be destroyed, lest some unworthy person will use the secret of the Showbread for idol worship.

did the Sages admit their mistake and stated –

Everything that the L-rd created, He created for His own glory.” (ibid.) In other words they admitted that their original suspicions of the Garmu Family were unfounded.

Why did the Garmus’ not come clean right from the beginning and explain why they would not teach others the secret? Why did they wait until only after the Alexandrian bakers failed? The answer to this question probably lies with the above quote that the Garmus’ never used high quality flour to bake their personal bread. They were exceedingly strict and careful about public opinion. If they merely stated their reservation (above) about misuse for idol worship, they would not totally dispel allegations that their motives were impure and that they wanted the monopoly.

However, only after the Sages tried to replace them with the Alexandrian bakers (who were internationally known for their baking knowledge and skill) and they failed miserably, was it apparent that Divine intervention was involved, a sign that was indisputable, did the Sages admit their error publicly for the entire nation to hear and see. To punctuate their admission even further, the Sages gave the Garmus’ a raise in salary, to publicly exonerate them from any unfounded suspicion they might have harbored.

This is how many of the commentators understand the conclusion of the Mishna, including the Tosfot Yomtov and the Tiferet Yisrael, that the epilogue of this story, when it states  “Of blessed memory” (Tractate Yoma 38a) that it is referring to the Garmu Family (and the Avtinas family – those in charge of the Incense offering), that they were in fact exonerated from what started off as a seemingly derogatory episode..


The shortcomings of the Alexandrian bakers

Upon examining the description of the failure of the Alexandrian bakers to duplicate the Garmus’  results, we can learn much about the baking process of the Showbread.

The Sages sent for and brought artisan bakers from Alexandria (Egypt). They knew how to bake as well as the Garmus’ but they did not know how to remove the bread from the oven like the Garmus’. They ( Alexandrian bakers) would fire up from the outside and bake outside and they (Garmus’) would fire up from the inside and bake inside. Their (Alexandrian bakers’) bread went moldy and their (Garmus’) bread did not” (Tractate Yoma 38a).

Firstly one should not expect from analyzing this account of the baking process to fully understand the Garmus’ entire secret. The bottom line at the end of the story was that the Sages did not learn the secret. All that appears in the Mishna and the Talmud were the outside observations of the Sages of the process.  Despite that, we can get a few hints from the story relating to the different preparation processes of the Showbread and these complete some parts of the complex puzzle that was the Garmus’ secret.

In order to understand the meaning of the descriptions on the Talmud above, we first need to understand the baking process.

a. Kneading – includes incorporating the ingredients and kneading  the dough, “outside” the Temple courtyard (Tractate Menahot 95b)
b. Shaping – after kneading the dough, they took the dough and arranged it in a special pan (pan #1, Menahot 94a).
c. Baking – in a metal oven (Tractate Zevachim 95b) in the Temple confines, in a “square form”, or pan#2, which was perforated like a beehive (Menahot 94a) and was fixed in the oven.
d. Removal from Oven – removal of pan #1 from the oven, removal of the baked bread from pan #1 and transferal to pan #3 for cooling (Menahot 94a).

It is safe to assume that the entire process, including the stages performed out of and in the Temple confines were done by the Garmu Family, since the entire secret encompasses all these stages.

Why was the kneading not done within the Temple confines, in the same location the bread was baked? This has ramifications regarding the ingredients of the Showbread which will be covered in another article. It is assumed that there was physical proximity between the place the dough was kneaded and the place it was baked, the Beit Hamoked, since the bread process had to be completed within a short allotted time so that it would not become chametz (leaven).

Why did they not knead the dough outside and shape it inside? The answer is simple. It is easier and more prudent to transport two heavy loaves of bread after they have been arranged in their baking pans which were enclosed and not exposed, rather than exposed in an open kneading bowl.

There is a dispute about pan #1, whether it was made from gold or iron. Accroding to the commentator Rashi (Exodus 25:29) it was made of iron. According to Maimonides (Hilchot Tmidin Umusafin 5:8) it was made of gold. The type of metal perhaps has ramifications relating to how easily the bread was removed from the pan.  All our experimentation in the Showbread Institute are done with iron pans and there is a problem that the bread sticks to the pan. We have not yet been able to experiment with pans made from pure gold and it would be interesting if the bread sticks equally to the gold as it does to the iron, or less.

Without a doubt, the Showbread entered the oven to bake after it had already been arranged in a special pan that determined its final (complex) shape. The ancient custom of plastering bread on the walls or floor of the oven without the use of a special pan is not applicable to the Showbread, due to its complex shape. Also the assertion that the dough was inserted freely into the square form that was fixed in the oven, which supposedly  determined its final shape is not realistic. Trying to arrange dough which weighs upward of 5-6kg carefully inside an oven which is close to 350 degrees Celsius, is not plausible.

It is therefore likely that the dough was carefully arranged in pan #1, out of the oven and that pan #1 was then inserted into pan #2 which was a fixed square form in the oven which probably enclosed the bread from the sides.

In out Institute we constructed two versions of pan #1, one for the Teiva Perutza shape (rectangular folded shape) and for the Sfina rokedet (rounded folded shape), which comprise of two parts, an upper and a lower part, between which the dough is arranged, so that the dough is closed in from above and below, but open on the sides. Pan #2 is a rectangular shaped pan into which pan #1 is inserted, so that the bread is also closed from the sides, as well as from above and below. In our experiments we did not fix pan #2 in the oven, as this oven is used for other purposes and in our experiments, pan #2 is portable, however the principle is the same. Both pan #1 and pan #2 are perforated to allow an even bake.

After the bread is baked, you remove pan #1 from the oven. Then you remove the bread from pan #1 (rediyat hapat) and you transfer it to pan #3 made from gold, which is also perforated to allow the bread to cool without accumulation of moisture that can contribute to mold.


Regarding heating the oven, there are two types of oven.

a. A one chamber oven. The fire is placed in the single chamber to heat the oven. When the fire dies down and the oven is hot, the bread is inserted into this same chamber where it is baked by the heat of the coals. This is what is called firing up from the inside and baking inside, i.e the source of heat is in the same single chamber as the baking bread. The advantage of such an oven is that the oven temperature can get much higher because the heat source is in the same chamber. The disadvantage of this method, if the bread is exposed, is that it can get covered in soot and ashes from the fire and the bread does not come out clean (with the Showbread this is not an issue, since the bread is entirely enclosed by pan #1 and pan #2).

b. A two chamber oven. Fire is lit in the lower chamber. This opens up into the upper chamber where the flames from the fire below heat the upper chamber. After the upper chamber is hot, the fire is shut off from the upper chamber and the bread is baked from the ambient heat absorbed by the metal oven.  This is what is called firing up from the outside and baking from the outside, i.e the source of the heat and the bread are not in the same chamber. The advantage of such a setup is that all the soot and ashes from the fire remain in the lower chamber and the bread (if baked exposed) comes out clean. The disadvantage is that the oven temperature during baking is lower than a single chamber oven since the heat source and the bread are not in the same chamber.

After this technical introduction, let us examine the description of the discrepancies between the Alexandrian bakers and the Garmus’ in the Talmud. To complicate matters further there are three versions of this description, each slightly different (the Bavli Talmud, the Yerushalmi Talmud and the Tosefta). We will examine them individually.


The Bavli Talmud –

a. The Garmus’ fired from the inside and baked inside
b. The Alexandrian bakers fired from the outside and baked from the outside

The Garmus’ used a one chamber oven in which they lit the fire AND baked the bread. The Alexandrian bakers used a two chamber oven so the bread was not baked in the same chamber as the fire. As explained above the baking temperature of a one chambered oven is higher than a two chambered oven. It was therefore more thoroughly baked and the interior of the bread was more fully baked. The Alexandrian bakers' bread was fully baked on the outside, but the internal portion of the bread was not fully baked .

The Bavli Talmud version pertains to the mold susceptibility of the bread.

The Yerushalmi Talmud –

a. The Garmus’ fired from the inside and removed the bread outside.
b. The Alexandrian bakers fired from the inside and removed the bread inside.

In this version the firing method is identical, what differs is the method of removal of the bread.  In fact the Yerushalmi specifically states this – “They were proficient in the making the Showbread, but were not proficient in removing it from the oven” (Yerushalmi, Yoma 3:9). Why is it preferable to remove the bread outside the oven rather than inside? If  you remove the bread from the oven while it is still inside pan #1 and outside the oven you remove the bread from pan #1, you have more control under more comfortable conditions to remove the bread without it falling apart. If you try remove the bread from pan #1 while it is still inside the oven, the bread has a greater chance of breaking.

The Yerushalmi Talmud version pertains to the fragility of the bread.

The Tosefta –

a. The Garmus’ would fire from the outside and bake and remove inside.
b. The Alexandrian bakers “would not do that”.

Unlike the Bavli and the Yerushalmi which each address only two stages of the process (Bavli – heating/baking, Yerushalmi – heating/removal), the Tosefta addresses three stages – heating, baking and removal. The Tosefta version contradicts the Bavli version about the firing and also contradicts the Yerushalmi version both about the firing and the removal.

The Bavli and Yerushalmi  verions can coexist, they simply pertain to different aspects of the process. On the other hand the Tosefta cannot coexist neither with the Bavli (on one point) nor the Yerushalmi (on two points).

The version of the Tosefta is problematic. Firing from the outside describes a two chamber oven.  In such an oven the baking is also does outside the fire chamber. So the Tosefta seems to contradict itself when it says fire outside, bake inside. Also removing the bread inside is unlikely as described in the Yerushalmi version above. Finally the Toefta does not specify exactly what the Alexandrian bakers did wrong.  Did they not comply with one of the stages? two? three?

The Tosefta version is problematic and needs further investigation.


A different slant on the baking process is given by the commentator Rashi in Yoma 38a. “Because those – the Alexandrians – did not know how to remove the bread so that it would not break, since it was done in the shape of a Teiva Perutza (a rectangular folded shape) or a Sfina Rokedet (a rounded folded shape), they were afraid to plaster it inside, so they baked it outside".

According to Rashi it appears that the Garmus’ did not insert the bread into the oven in a pan, but freely plastered it inside a pan in the oven. While theoretically this sounds good on paper, in reality, inserting dough into a pan already in a piping hot oven, is not realistic, as decribed above. Rashi’s commentary also requires further investigation and understanding.

There are some opinions that “inside” and “outside” do not refer to the oven chambers, but to the interior and exterior of the bread.  This explanation would work for firing “outside” – on the exterior of the bread, but how do you fire from the “inside”? How can you fire from inside the bread? Therefore this opinion does not seem plausible.

Another explanation given is that “inside” and “outside” refer to inside and outside the Temple courtyard. However this is incorrect. It is a known fact that the ovens were “inside” the Temple courtyard, in the Beit Hamoked and were not portable. You could not fire up the oven outside the courtyard and bake “inside” the courtyard.

Professor Mordechai Kislev, Yoni Tabak-Kaniel and Dr. Orit Simchoni from the Life Sciences department in Bar Ilan University concur with me that the term “firing from the outside” means a lower oven temperature. They theorize that the Alexandrian bakers, in an attempt to preserve the freshness of the bread for an entire week, used more water in the dough and then baked it at a lower temperature, such that the excess water did not evaporate sufficiently. The result was the opposite of what they were trying to achieve – because of the larger water content, the bread went moldy (Mekor Rishon newspaper, “The Lost Horani: The Quest for the Biblical Wheat”, by Arnon Segal, 14/01/2018).

As I stated above, the story of the Alexandrian bakers does not full explain the Garmus’ secret, but an in-depth analysis of it, with the caveat that it was seen by the Sages as outside observers, does throw some light on the Showbread process. The entire secret most probably encompasses not just the baking process and the removal process, but also the choice of ingredients and method of dough preparation.

We will end by reiterating the Sages’ admission after the Alexandrian baker incident, to the Garmu Family, a family of pious bakers with tradition, selflessness, values and skill.

Everything that the L-rd created, He created for His own glory.”

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