“You shall take choice flour and bake of it twelve loaves, two-tenths of a measure for each loaf. Place them on the pure table before God in two rows, six to a row” (Leviticus 24:5-6). While the instructions are clear, the purpose is unstated. Though the Talmud (Menahot 94a) fleshes out the instructions, explaining that the loaves “were kneaded one by one and baked two by two,” readers come no closer to finding meaning in this procedure. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, founder of the neo-Orthodox movement in nineteenth century Germany, helps.
He writes that each loaf represents each of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. What the Talmud adds is that in the initial stage of preparation of the loaves (kneading), each loaf merited the same degree of individual attention, that is, they were kneaded one by one. Afterwards, they were baked two at a time: this one with that one, and this one for the sake of that one. In other words, “each one held up the next and thus symbolized unity and friendship.”
Two values are emphasized by the preparation of the loaves. The first value is individuality. For the Sages, individuality is a supreme value. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), for instance, advises that “everyone must say ‘For my sake was the world created.’” It is a concept derived from the fact that God created a single human being out of whom all of humanity emerged. In the mid-twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Chen wrote that every person remains in the category of “there is none else besides me.” This attitude is reflected by the fact that each of the twelve loaves was treated independently. If the loaves are like people, each person deserves respect as an individual. People should not be lumped together but allowed to stand alone.
However, society cannot function if all people operate on their own. Unrestrained individuality must be tempered with communality. The individual must surrender to the group. The loaves are baked by twos to emphasize that each and every individual needs a supportive partner. The two rows of loaves on display are a visual depiction of partnership. More than a symbolic display, the loaves were an object lesson in balancing the individual with the community.