“Shofar Away”: An Akhenaten Connection to the Jewish New Year
The lone blast of the shofar trumpet stretches out across the hills, illuminated by the first rays of the morning sun. The distinct sonorous call marks the important day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, also called the “Day of Trumpets/Shouting” ( Yom Teru’ah). Millions of Jews around the world celebrate it each year by blasting the shofar trumpets, reading the Torah of Moses, and enjoying sweet delicacies like pomegranates, challah bread, and red wine.
However, the day is also cloaked in mystery, with perhaps the greatest being its origins. Scholars point to its emergence during the period of the rabbis in the 2nd century AD, or during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. However, I believe it connects all the way back to the period of religious heresy under the pharaoh Akhenaten, whom I have argued was also the Hebrew prophet Moses.
In the Hebrew Bible, the beginning of the year fell during the spring, in the Jewish month of Nissan: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2). However, by the time of the rabbis of the 2nd century AD, the first day (i.e. new moon) of the seventh month (Tishri) was celebrated as the “Head of the Year”, or Rosh Hashanah. Scholars argue that the Israelites adopted many foreign customs when they were exiled in Babylon, including the names of the months and also some of their festivals, such as the New Year festival of Akitu, which also fell on the first of Tishri.
After the Israelites returned from their Babylonian exile in 537 BC, Ezra the Priest read the entire “Torah of Moses” to the people on the first day of the seventh month. After reading the entire scroll, Ezra commanded the people to: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad; the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Ezra the Priest brought the law before the congregation. "The art Bible, comprising the Old and New Testaments: with numerous illustrations." (1896). (Internet Archive Book Images)
Interestingly, the first day of the seventh month was actually mentioned directly by Moses in the Torah, not in connection to a new year, but in connection to trumpet blowing and Sabbath rest: “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, in the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a Sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation.” (Leviticus 23:24).
We can understand the analogy that since the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, a day of rest, then the first day of the seventh month should likewise be observed via rest and trumpet blowing. These trumpet blasts historically announced the Sabbaths’ opening and closing each week, as well as festivals like Rosh Hashanah.
Trumpets, Horns, and the Theme of Joy
In the second verse in the Torah in which Moses refers to this holy day, Numbers 29:1, he refers to it as the “Feast of Trumpets”: “On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. It is a day for you to sound the trumpets.” Archaeologist James Hoffmeier has noted the instruments described in the Bible are not likely late-period fabrications but reflect genuine historical instruments that have been documented from the time of Akhenaten and his nephew, Tutankhamun.
Block from Amarna showing trumpeters, from the MET Museum, # 1985.328.11. (Public Domain)
On the smashed blocks of Amarna, the city of Akhenaten, we see people blowing trumpets, and Howard Carter uncovered a silver trumpet from the tomb of Tutankhamun, made of thin-beaten metal exactly as described in the Torah in Numbers 10:1: “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Make two trumpets of hammered silver’”. You can even listen online to Tutankhamun’s trumpet being played again after 3,000 years, letting you imagine what the first Jewish New Year might have sounded like.
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Tutankhamun’s silver trumpet with wooden insert. (Meridianos)
Besides the straight silver trumpet of Moses, there is another trumpet used on Rosh Hashanah, a twisted ram’s horn called a shofar. The twisted ram’s horn was an early trumpet distinct from the straight silver trumpet and was first mentioned when Moses approached Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. The coronation of Jewish kings also involved the blasting of shofars:
“Let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him there as king of Israel, and blow the shofar and say, ‘Long Live King Solomon!’” (1 Kings 1:34).
Interestingly, while we have no evidence that Akhenaten used a twisted ram’s horn as a trumpet, we do have evidence he wore them, actually inventing a new crown that contained a pair of twisted ram’s horns, exactly like the shofar. The crown was called the hemhem, which translated as “to shout” or “to cry out”, leading scholars to believe it may have been a crown for joyous celebrations.
Akhenaten wears the hemhem crown with shofar-like horns and sun discs, under the rays of the Aten sun disc, joyously offering incense and food alongside his wife, Nefertiti (from the tomb of Panehesy – Davies, N. de G., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna: Part II – The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra II). (Davies, N. de G., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna: Parts I - VI. (London, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1908; 6 volumes originally, Part V and VI being reprinted by the Egypt Exploration Society, 2004).
We certainly see this evidence in a tomb scene showing the king and Queen Nefertiti wearing them while adoring the sun with incense offerings. The accompanying texts say: “Praise to thee, the Living Aten, Lord of Eternity, Maker of Everlastingness… when the Aten rises, all the land is in joy!” This suggests Akhenaten created the hemhem crown to joyously celebrate his god, since these sentiments are so often expressed in the writings at Amarna. We also see his nephew, Tutankhamun, wear this same crown under the sun’s rays on a golden throne discovered by Howard Carter.
Depiction of Tutankhamun on a throne recovered from his tomb. He wears the new hemhem, or the “Crown of Shouting”. This is nearly identical with the day of Rosh Hashanah, the “Day of Shouting or Trumpet-Blasting”. (Ancient Origins)
Interestingly, these same themes appear later in Judaism. For example, Psalm 98:6 says: “with trumpets and the blast of the shofar – shout for joy before the Lord, the King!” Nehemia Gordon reminds us that the Hebrew word teru’ah actually translates not as trumpet blasting but as “making a loud noise”. In the story of the falling walls of Jericho, it was not the shofar horns that initiated the crumbling of the city’s defenses, but the “great shout” ( teru’ah) of the “entire nation”.
Norman de Garis Davies, who copied the inscriptions from the Amarna tombs in the first decade of the 20th century, noted that: “the cult of the Aten seems to have been specially marked by demonstrations of joy.” From the tomb of Akhenaten’s high priest Mery-Ra we read: “Singing, chanting, and joyful shouting are in … every temple in Akhet-Aten”. This echoes a theme of Rosh Hashanah that existed early on joy. Both Ezra and Nehemiah stress this fact after reading the Torah to the Israelites: “Do not be sad; the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10), and we read in Psalms 98:4: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the Earth, be jubilant, shout for joy and sing!”
Pomegranate necklace from Amarna, made of blue faience ceramic. (Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, World Museum)
Connections in Cuisine
More connections back to Akhenaten can be found in the symbolic foods eaten during the New Year, including pomegranates, circular bread loaves, and red wine. Pomegranates were long a symbolic fruit of fecundity in the Middle East and were grown in Asia long before appearing in Egypt. They were generally associated with royalty and the elite class.
We have recovered many depictions of pomegranates from Amarna, including necklaces, and Howard Carter recovered a large silver vase in this shape from Tutankhamun’s tomb. These fruit were also important to Moses, who called for their representation on the fringe of the robe of Aaron, the High Priest, in Exodus 28:33-34.
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Silver pomegranate vase recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb. (Griffith Institute (Howard Carter Archive)/Touregypt.net)
Circular bread loaves called challah, which are coiled or braided, are also eaten on Rosh Hashanah, to symbolize the circular nature of the year, the world God created, and even a crown. We see almost identical round, braided, and coiled loaves during the time of Akhenaten in the New Kingdom. In many scenes from Amarna we see the king’s family offer loaves to the Aten, which recalls Moses’ later golden table of the twelve loaves of God’s presence in Exodus 25:30.
In a scene from the time of Ramesses III we see an entire bakery at work, full of round, coiled, and even animal-shaped loaves. This give us an idea of what the massive bakeries excavated at Amarna must have looked like.
A princess offering round bread loaves (MET Museum, # 1985.328.5) similar to round challah. (Public Domain)
Red wine is another essential at Rosh Hashanah, and it was likewise a vital element at Amarna feasts. We see evidence that Akhenaten, his family, and the rest of the elites at Amarna all enjoyed red wine with their meals and that grapes were grown in the city and across the country.
Dr. Maria Rosa Guasch Jané is an expert in ancient Egyptian wine and viticulture, and notes “in Egypt, wine was a prestigious drink consumed mainly by royalty and the elite and offered to gods in daily temple rituals”. She also reminds us that grapes were seen by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of resurrection, particularly of the king, since both red and white wine were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, positioned as to help him achieve immortality.
Akhenaten consumes wine with his wife, children, and even mother, Queen Tiye, in a scene from the Tomb of Amarna noble Huya. (Davies, N. de G., The Rock Tombs of El Amarna: Parts I - VI. (London, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1908; 6 volumes originally, Part V and VI being reprinted by the Egypt Exploration Society, 2004).)
The most esteemed wine was the shedeh wine, which was produced in much lower quantities than the regular wine ( irep). We see a depiction of the process of making shedeh on the tomb wall of Baqet III at Beni-Hassan from the 21st century BCE. The accompanying text describes how the wine was pressed, heated, filtered, and finally poured into a jar of regular wine to increase its alcohol content, shelf-life, and sweetness. Eva-Lena Wahlberg did a M.A. thesis examining the wine jars from Amarna and noted that the uncommon shedeh wine was distinguished by its sweetness (“sdm”).
Making shedeh sweet red wine by heating and filtering; from a noble tomb (15 - Baqet III) at Beni-Hassan, 21st century BC. (Champollion, J. F, Les monuments de l’Egypte et de la Nubie IV, Paris, 1845, Pl 389/4; jfr Tallet 1995: 459-492.)
Interestingly, this type of heated, sweet red wine is a hallmark of Jewish wines. This is mevushal wine, which means “cooked” (although today’s wineries don’t boil their wine, but rather heat it up quickly in a process called “flash pasteurization”). As described by Andrew Paul: “when most people blast kosher wines, they are usually criticizing a specific variant of kosher wine called mevushal and the distinct, near-boiling process often (but not always) used in Jewish wine production.
Despite lacking a clear reason as to why, Talmudic tradition holds that wine becomes ‘useless’ to idolaters when it is boiled early on, by Jews, to a certain temperature, after which point it can be handled by non-Jews without losing its kosher status.” Hence, common Jewish red wines are usually heated and sweetened at some point during their creation, exactly like the shedeh wine during the time of Akhenaten.
Ideological Links back to Amarna
During Rosh Hashanah, a special blessing is said, the malkiyot, to remind us that God is King of the world. This is a theme particular in history to the reign of Akhenaten, during which the original name of his god, the Aten sun disc, was modified to refer to him as a “king”. In an unprecedented move, he wrote the name of his god in a cartouche, the sacred ring of eternal protection that enclosed the name of the king, not the god.
The name of Aten, enclosed in kingly cartouches, carved in fine white marble, from Amarna, now in the MET Museum, # 29.9.431 (Public Domain)
This was never before done in Egypt and broke the distinction between “god” ( netjer) and “king/ruler” ( heqa). Akhenaten called his new god “king” of the universe, a theme that is universal in Judaism and features in the common prayer the Shehecheyanu: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe”. Curiously, this prayer title means “Who has given us Life”, which sounds remarkably like Akhenaten’s line: “O Living Aten, who has given life”.
Not only did both Moses and Akhenaten view their deity as a king, but they also both viewed them as solitary deities who single-handedly created the entire world. Here Akhenaten described the Aten in his hymn: “O sole God, without another beside him! You create the earth according to your wish, being alone – one lives by means of you!” In the Torah, we read the God created the heavens and the earth by himself, exactly like Akhenaten’s notion: “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” (Genesis 1:1).
Interestingly, God’s creation in Genesis took seven days. The number seven itself holds significance. More important Jewish festivals occur in the seventh month than any other. These include New Year, the ten Days of Awe, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Azteret, Simchat Torah, and the holiest day of the entire year, Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”. This echoes the importance of the seventh day as a “day of rest”, both for people and God.
Seven is perhaps the most sacred Hebrew numbers, as Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis explains: “Seven is one of the greatest power numbers in Judaism, representing Creation, good fortune, and blessing. A Hebrew word for luck, gad, equals seven in gematria.” Arvid Kapelrud has noted that it is “well known the number seven is a holy number in the ancient Near East… Seven represented the full number of blessings as well as of curses … Saying seven was like saying ‘maximum’”. Egyptologist Bob Brier notes that it represented “perfection” to the Egyptians, and we see the number appear repeatedly in their magic practices.
We also know the number was important to Akhenaten. The name of the Aten was inscribed on statues of him seven times, his temple the Gem-pa-Aten had seven inner chambers, and we often see depictions of seven oil vessels lined up on offering tables, recalling not only the seven sacred oils used by Old Kingdom funerary priests, but the seven oil vessels of the menorah lampstand of Moses. Pharaohs also had seven holy crowns, as noted by Robert Feather, who refers in particular to Akhenaten, who is often called Lord of Crowns, and wears the seven distinct crowns in his art.
The name of the Aten is written on Akhenaten in seven different places. (Williamson, Jacquelyn, “Evidence for Innovation and Experimentation on the Akhenaten Colossi”, In Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Volume 78, No. 1; 25-36, April 2019.)
A Memorial of a Forgotten Event?
A last point to raise is the essential mystery of Rosh Hashanah: what was actually being remembered by blowing the trumpets? The Torah? The Exodus? As Nehemia Gordon stresses: “The Torah gives at least one reason for all the other holy days and two reasons for some. In contrast to all the Torah festivals, Yom Teru’ah has no clear purpose other than that we are commanded to rest on this day.”
Rabbis have debated this for centuries, some arguing it memorialized the ram that God substituted for the sacrifice of Isaac, while others see it as a memorial of the creation of the world. Yet others suggest that God will never forget or abandon us. The Torah itself is silent on the reason, which is curious because the text suggests something important was being remembered.
Could the connection lie in the other two blessings – that of the kingship of God and the shofar blowing, often associated in the Bible with coronations? Could this day in fact be remembering the long-forgotten coronation of Akhenaten – and thus Moses, the enigmatic figure and secret “king” at the center of Judaism?
We can see these connections in the blasting of the trumpets, the many symbolic foods, and the more abstract ideas like a single God who is both creator and king. I strongly believe the seeds of Rosh Hashanah were planted by this “heretic king”, who first sounded the trumpets to joyously celebrate his sole God: creator and king of the world. Amazingly, Jews three millennia later are still doing exactly the same thing.
A shofar is sounded under the rising sun, while Akhenaten offers incense offerings to the same sun wearing a crown of ram’s horns and sun discs. (Author Provided)
Top image: A shofar is sounded under the light of the sun. Source: Rafael Ben-Ari /Adobe Stock.