Regarding the debate between Rebi Hanina and Rebi Yohanan (Talmud, Tractate Menahot 94b) as to what the shape of the Showbread looked like (a rectangular folded shape – Teiva Perutza/Open-box, or a rounded folded shape – Sfina Rokedet/Dancing-ship), the commentator Chazon Ish (Menahot 42, pg. 80) writes “And it appears that according to the letter of the law of the Showbread, it is possible to make it in any shape that you like and the (above) debate only addresses how it was customarily made”.
The shape of the Showbread has ramifications for the structure of the Shulchan (Table) and its components, the pans, the pipes, the uprights etc. Thus according to the method of the Chazon Ish, according to the letter of the law, the Table may also be constructed differently, depending on the shape of the bread. From the simple understanding of the verse “And you shall make its pans, bowls, pipes and uprights … out of pure gold shall you make them”. (Exodus 25:29) it seems that the only limiting criterion for making these parts is that they be of pure gold.
It is possible that from a purely Halachic (legal) aspect this may be so, but the Mishna and the Talmud went to great pains to describe the raw shape of the Showbread, the method of folding (Menahot 96a) and even the options for the final shape (Menahot 94b). There ust be a reason for this, even if we assume that the shapes described there were simply customs, they were obviously considered important enough to deserve honorable mention.
Either way, it is prudent to examine the differences between the Teiva Perutza/Open-box and the Sfina Rokedet/Dancing-ship shapes, if only for understanding the reason behind the customs and why they made them in those shapes.
From the debate in the Talmud (Menahot 94b) is may erroneously appear that there is a great chasm between the opinion of R. Hanina (Teiva Perutza) and R. Yohanan (Sfina Rokedet) but surprisingly this is not so. According to research conducted in the Showbread Institute it has been determined that the main difference between the two is that the Teiva Perutza has a straight, flat base while the Sfina Rokedet has a curved base, as follows-
These “customary” shapes are not simply a matter of geometry and aesthetics, they have more profound ramifications.
Simple observation reveals that the Sfina Rokedet shape resembles the Hebrew letter “kaf” כ, while the Teiva Perutza shape resembles pair of suffix letters “kaf” ך (when the “kaf” appears at the end of a word), as follows -
In the book of Jewish mysticism Sefer Hayetzira, the letter “kaf” כ symbolizes a כלי (vessel) and a royalכתר (crown).
The first occurrence of the letter “kaf”כ in the Torah is in Genesis 1:4 “ And G-d saw the light, that it was good …וירא א-לוקים את האור כי טוב “, in other words “contains everything good”, meaning that the letter “kaf” כ symbolizes a container/vessel and containment, like the shape of an upturned palm of the hand, a spoon, a cup (also note the resemblance between the English word cup and the name of the letter “kaf”), etc. Another book of mysticism Midrash Otiyot DeRabi Akiva (letter כ, page 110) states – “Why does the letter כ resemble a cup and is facing the next letter “lamed” ל ? Because the Hebrew words כוס (cup) and כסא (seat/chair/throne) are one and the same and any royal throne is designed for kings (the letter “lamed” is taller and rises above the other letters like a king) to sit upon” .
The purpose of the Showbread was as a kind of vessel to receive the Divine blessing of G-d’s abundance and the Table upon which they rested was a symbol of royalty. It is not surprising therefore that the shape chosen for the Showbread was like the letter “kaf” כ.
In Tractate Menahot (96a) it states – “Ben Zoma says ….. Lechem Panim (Showbread) that it should have ‘panim’ (faces)”. Many of the commentators, including Maimonides interpret Ben Zoma as saying there should be many “faces” or sides to the bread (this is the topic of another article – how many sides there were and what the symbolism of the number of sides is). However there is another way to interpret Ben Zoma and that is as follows – that it should [resemble] a face (a human face) and in fact, both shapes, the Teiva Perutza and the Sfina Rokedet (more so) resemble a smiling mouth.
The same Ben Zoma says elsewhere (Talmud, Tractate Avot 4:1) “Who is wealthy? Someone who is happy with their lot, as it says (Psalms 128:2) ‘You will eat the fruit of the toil of your hands (labor), blessings and prosperity will be yours יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך’”. The Showbread and Table symbolize wealth and prosperity. True wealth and prosperity are enjoyed by someone who is happy with their lot and the facial expression of happiness is – a smile.
To prove his assertion about who is wealthy, Ben Zoma brings a verse from Psalms – “You will eat the fruit of the toil of your hands (labor), blessings and prosperity will be yours יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך”. Instead of reading the word “hands” כפיך, read it as כ-פיך (the smiling shape of your mouth), i.e. by toiling (making an effort) to smile, you will be happy and hence also wealthy. This correlates closely with the Sfina Rokedet shape of R. Yohanan. Yet another way to read this verse in Psalms is as follows – instead of reading the words “hands” כפיך, read it as כפיך your two letters “kaf”, i.e a pair of “kaf” ך (suffix) letters. This correlates closely with the Teiva Perutza shape of R. Hanina.
What is the difference between the letter “kaf” כ and “kaf” (suffix) ך? The mystic book Pardes Rimonim (Sha’ar Haotiyot, 14) explains that when someone receives the Divine blessing of abundance, he is likened to the closed letter “kaf” כ, (like pouring wine into a cup). Then he must release that abundance so that it may disseminate further throughout him and throughout the world. He therefore opens the cup (or pours it out) and allows the abundance to flow downwards, like the letter “kaf” (suffix) ך (which is not closed but open on the bottom end). As it says in another verse in Psalms (155:17) “[G-d] Open Your hands and satisfy every living thing פותח את ידך ומשביע לכל חי רצון”.
Another interpretation in Jewish mysticism is that the Hebrew letter “kaf” refers to the sphere of מלכות (royalty). According to the Kabbalah, there are ten ספירות “spheres” which are a kind of a blueprint for the structure of everything G-d has created. Every one of G-d’s creations is crafted in the structure of these ten spheres and each sphere contains another ten spheres of the same structure and they another ten - ad infinitum. The spheres are essentially a “filtration” system that filters the supreme spiritual light of G-d which G-d’s physical creations cannot tolerate due to its intensity, so that it may be converted into a usable form by G-d’s creations (this is a simplistic explanation of something which is much more profound, but beyond the scope of this article). The sphere of מלכות (royalty) is closely related with reproduction and offspring. This offers another slant on both the symbolism of the Showbread and the Table and the above saying of Ben Zoma, that true wealth is related to having offspring.
Therefore, even on a deeper symbolic level, there is not a significant difference between the shape of R. Hanina and R. Yohanan.
R. Hanina (bar Hama) and R. Yohanan (bar Nafha) were no strangers to material wealth. R. Hanina made his fortune by trading in honey and used his wealth to build a Yeshiva. He lived to enjoy the fruits of his labor, until the ripe old age of 95. R. Yohanan inherited a fortune in real estate from his father, but sold it all in order to study Torah. He was wont to say – “Is it not worth selling all the possessions of this world, that was created in 6 days, to merit the Torah that was given in 40 days (Midrash, Song of Songs Raba 8:7)?”. He lived to enjoy the fruit of his labor, until the ripe old age of 100. Both understood the true meaning of wealth, symbolized by the Showbread and tried to convey that in their debate in Menahot 94b. The Showbread were seen by pilgrims to Jerusalem on the festivals, who upon seeing the symbolic shape, would immediately internalize the lesson of Ben Zoma “Who is wealthy? Someone who is happy with their lot”.