An Akhenaten Connection to the Harvest Festival of Shavuot - Part 1
The Jewish festival of Shavuot is taking place around the world. It is an ancient celebration of the spring harvest of grains and first fruits. It is the year’s first wheat harvest, and Jews around the world mark its occasion by parading their produce and bounty of the land, and joyously giving thanks to God for his blessings. They enjoy dairy products, fresh bread, grapes, and honey. They also celebrate the giving of their law on Mount Sinai. This law, called the Torah, is the foundation of all Jewish religious practice and literature, and it was first given 3,300 years ago by Moses. This giving of the law was the foundational event of Judaism and is celebrated each year during Shavuot.
The special emphasis on the Torah and its study, often done in all-night marathon sessions, is central to the modern holiday. The Ten Commandments are read aloud in synagogues, specifically to children, who are encouraged to hear these core rules first on this holy day. Children have a prominent place throughout the festivities, dancing, singing, and waving flowers. Families are encouraged to go outside into nature and celebrate God’s creation. All of these themes – grain harvest, first fruits, nature, family, children, thanksgiving, joy, Torah-study - give Shavuot extra coloring, but also deepen its mystery.
The origins of its key features remain obscure, but I believe I can demonstrate how Egypt’s heretic pharaoh Akhenaten helped initiate many of its important traditions, and inspire many others. I have argued previously that Akhenaten lived on in exile, ultimately becoming the Hebrew prophet Moses. He would thus have retained many of his favorite motifs and features from his city of Amarna when designing the new Israelite religion. We see these themes perhaps no better than in the three main Jewish Festivals, particularly Shavuot.
Tablets of the Law with the Golden Calf, by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-1482 AD (now in the Sistine Chapel, by Web Gallery of Art). (Cosimo Rosselli / Public domain)
Origins in Agriculture
Shavuot is first mentioned in the Torah in connection with agriculture, specifically the wheat harvest and the first fruits. It was always to be held fifty days after the first barley harvest of Passover, and was originally called the “Feast of the Harvest of the First Fruits” ( Chag HaBikkurim). In Exodus 23:16, we read Moses commanded his people: “Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the First Fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field …” Moses also called it the “Feast of Weeks” ( Chag HaShavuot) in Exodus 34:22: “You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest…” The reference to weeks referred to its occurrence seven weeks after Passover (Shavuot means “weeks”).
The ancient “Gezer Calendar” is an inscription carved onto a stone recovered from Israel. Dating to the tenth century BC, the text is an agricultural calendar, describing what farmers in the land did each month of the year. It describes the period of late May-early June (the time of Shavuot) as the time of “reaping and measuring grain”, before the summer months of pruning the fall fruits. This incredible ancient calendar, written in early Paleo-Hebrew script, provides historical reliability for the antiquity of Moses’ festivals. It breaks the months of the year down into specific agricultural activities, such as sowing and reaping, and provides the template for the festivals of Solomon’s Temple.
The Gezer agricultural calendar tablet is one of the earliest Hebrew texts, emphasizing how important agriculture was to the early Israelites. The text describes the main acts of farming each season, including the grain harvest of Shavuot. Early Iron Age, 10th century BC. From Gezer, in modern-day State of Israel. Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul, Turkey. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Feast of Passover in early spring marked the barley harvest, while fifty days later the Feast of Shavuot marked the wheat harvest and first fruits. This specific time period of seven weeks was memorialized each day by counting the “Omer”, or sheaves of harvested barley, and this ritual is still performed through prayers in synagogues each year.
Painting depicting Shavuot (Pentecost), 1880. Themes present include the abundant greenery, the central role of the Torah Scroll, the importance of children, and even the Tablets of the Law standing watch over all, exactly like the two cartouches of the name of the Aten (now in the Jewish Museum, Manhattan). (Moritz Daniel Oppenheim / Public domain)
Centuries after Moses first gave these rules to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, they had settled in the Promised Land of Israel, and King Solomon had built a permanent temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. This remained in service for over four hundred years, during which Israelites were expected to travel to it thrice a year to make offerings. It was destroyed in 586 BC, but rebuilt less than a century later. From that point on, for another 585 years in fact, it continued to operate uninterrupted, being called colloquially the “Second” Jewish Temple.
It was beautifully renovated by Herod the Great in the years after Rome took over control of Israel, and by the time Jesus first visited it as a youth, the temple and its surrounding mount had become the largest, most beautiful site in the entire empire. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Jews traveled there during the three main feasts, including Shavuot, to offer bread, grain, birds, animals, flowers, and fruit. I can imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling the dusty roads south from Galilee to the temple before Shavuot, passing pilgrims carrying baskets of wheat sheaves and grapes.
When the Second Jewish Temple was destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 AD, the Jewish people were scattered and in disarray, unable to partake in any Torah rituals that involved offerings at the temple. The focus of their religion had been erased from existence, and they struggled to find a suitable alternative. They ultimately decided on the Torah itself as that substitute. The Jewish survivors of the Roman War reimagined the holiday of Shavuot and gave it new meaning, in order to survive. Since it occurred fifty days after Passover, it was decided that they would instead focus on the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, an event that also occurred fifty days after the Exodus.
A scale model of the Second Jewish Temple, built under King Herod a thousand years after Solomon built the first Temple on the same spot. This temple was visited by Jesus and Paul. The city of Jerusalem is visible behind the huge Temple Mount, of which the Temple itself occupies only the small central portion. In Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. (Ariely / CC BY 3.0)
The Shavuot “First Fruits” and their Amarna Antecedents
“Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 16:10). Many connections back to Akhenaten can be found in these “freewill offerings” - symbolic foods offered throughout the summer, first beginning during Shavuot. These are called the “seven species of the land”, or the first fruits: wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs, dates, and pomegranates. They also include fresh bread made from wheat flour. In particular, these new wheat loaves, made specifically with yeast, were to be waved as an offering to God during Shavuot. Plants and flowers are also used to decorate synagogues.
Upper part of limestone Colossi of Akhenaten, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, a towering crown reminiscent of the Torah crown (keter) and finials, or rimonim (now in the Cairo Museum). (Gérard Ducher / CC BY-SA 2.5)
We read of similar offerings at Amarna, within the gigantic Great Aten Temple, where over a thousand altars were routinely piled high with bread, fruits, flowers, meat, and incense during services. From the tomb of Panehesy, high priest at Amarna, we see images of hundreds of offering tables within the temple. The king himself describes a huge offering he made early at Amarna: “A great oblation was presented to the Father, the Aten, consisting of bread, beer, long- and short-horned cattle, calves, fowl, wine, fruits, incense, all sorts of fresh green plants and everything good in front of the Mountain of Akhet-Aten.” (Boundary Stela).
Since I have already discussed the connections between pomegranates and wine, I will focus here on some of the other symbolic foods of Shavuot. Interestingly, these are all foods that were well known at Akhenaten’s court. We see, on smashed blocks from his city, beautiful inscriptions of what life was like there 3,350 years ago. From these blocks, or talatat, we see evidence of many of the sacred species on Shavuot. We see a field of life-size ears of ripe barley, each grain delicately carved, swaying in a gentle breeze, in a form of art never before seen in Egypt, “while your rays nurse every field!” (Great Hymn to the Aten).
A beautiful carving of ripe barley, from an Amarna talatat block. It shows life-size ears of barely, delicately carved, swaying in a gentle breeze, in a form of art never before seen in Egypt, but typical of the naturalistic art of Akhenaten (Met Museum / Public domain)
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We see a grapevine with a cluster of grapes, showing both lightly-carved leaves and deeply-cut grapes. We see the king’s hand holding an olive branch under the rays of the Aten, showing in great detail the king’s fingernails, the roundness of the olives, and even how the rays travel through the individual leaves, first under, then above them, showing a great degree of artistic sophistication.
A further beautiful carving of the king’s hand holding an olive branch under the rays of the Aten, from an Amarna talatat block. It shows in great detail the fingernails of the king, the roundness of the olives, and even how the Aten’s rays travel through the individual leaves, first under, then above them, showing a great degree of sophistication. (Met Museum / Public domain)
Amazingly, we also see evidence that barley and wheat were used at Amarna, and that great ovens served the temples, the palace, and the city. Egyptologist Barry Kemp has excavated at Amarna since the late 1970s, and has unearthed evidence of huge bakeries near the Great Aten Temple. In his classic The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People (2012), Kemp notes that the city’s “most obvious component was a huge bank of ovens where bread was baked … Each chamber was a single baking unit … and the total number of baking chambers amounted to more than 100.” In addition, Kemp and his team excavated fragments from tens of thousands of conical pottery bread molds, heaped in the desert east of the bakeries and even burying the chambers as well.
I believe the most direct connection to the rituals of Shavuot and Akhenaten comes with the “Two Loaves” ritual, or the Shtei Halechem. As we read in Exodus 23:17: “From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of first fruits to the LORD.” We read of similar “offering loaves” in many of the tomb inscriptions at Amarna: “May he grant the receiving of offering loaves which issue from the presence in every festival of the living Aten…” (Panehesy, First Servitor of the Aten).
Strikingly, we see images of both Akhenaten and his daughters holding up two loaves! In several scenes from the Amarna tombs, we see the royal family holding two loaves before the sky, offering them to the Aten, in gestures of thanksgiving. These beautiful images remind us of how important family was at Amarna, how important the six daughters of the king were to his rituals; and how big a role children play today in Judaism generally and Shavuot specifically.
Amarna Princess Ankhesenpaaten, being offered two fresh baked loaves of bread by her nurse Tia, in a scene from a talatat block from Amarna This specific scene recalls the Shavuot tradition of the Shtei Halechem (Two Breads), during which two loaves of bread were offered in the Jerusalem temple on Shavuot, made of that year’s first wheat harvest. (Met Museum / Public domain)
Animals were also a key part of both Shavuot and Amarna offerings. In Numbers 28:27, we read the Jews were commanded to appear before the high priest and: “Present a burnt offering of two young bulls…” We see similar bulls ready for sacrifice at Amarna, as noted by Berry Kemp: “At Amarna, pictures show the cattle being led to slaughter in the cult of the Aten, garlanded with flowers. Although slaughtering is a noisy, smelly, messy business, the Great Aten Temple was laid out to accommodate it.”
The floral decorations worn by the cattle were still used centuries later at the Jerusalem temple. Panehesy was in charge of cattle sacrifices, and when his estate was excavated in 1926, extensive remains of cattle bones and horns were found.
Dairy Delight and a “Land of Milk and Honey”
The most prominent food on Shavuot is of course dairy, usually eaten in the form of blintzes or cheesecake. The reasons for this remain unclear. Some believe that because the Jewish dietary laws ( kashrut) were included in the Giving of the Torah, the meat they had already prepared was not kosher (ritually clean). Thus, while they slaughtered animals under the new kosher rules, they ate dairy meals. They could also not cross-contaminate their dishes, for under Moses’ new rubric, cooking and eating meat and dairy together was forbidden, as was even the sharing of utensils between them.
Others see a more symbolic reason, such as a connection between eating dairy and the idea that Israel was a land “flowing with milk and honey”. God first described Israel to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:8 as a land “flowing with milk and honey”, and that phrase is used often in the Bible, which itself is often likened to “spiritual milk,” containing all the spiritual nutrients for life. It is even referred to in such terms in the Song of Solomon 4:11: “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue.”
Interestingly, milk was an important part of life at Amarna, and is referred to in many inscriptions associated with offerings. From the tomb of the Overseer of the Royal Quarters, Mery-Ra II, we read: “A boon which the king gives of the living Aten … May he grant the fragrant breeze of the north wind, milk coming forth on the offering table, and all sorts of offerings – all kinds of vegetables, bread, beer, and foodstuff at every place of yours…” On the Naos of Bek, the “Chief Sculptor” at Amarna, we read the plea: “May wine and milk be poured for you, and the receiving of offering loaves which come forth into the presence…”
From the tomb of Huya, Chief Steward to Queen Tiye, we read: “May I partake of the things which issue from the Presence, that I might eat “shenes”-loaves, honey pastries, offering loaves, jugs of beer, roasted meat, hot food, cool water, wine, milk, everything which issues from the Mansion of the Aten…” In the Great Aten Temple, archaeologists excavated a situla (a ritual vessel) that once held milk for offerings, being in the shape of a breast. It has the erased cartouche of Akhenaten, and is made of faience with blue glaze. We can also see similarly shaped vessels of all sizes in the tomb inscriptions of the temple.
A situla with the erased cartouche of Akhenaten, found in the Great Aten Temple at Amarna. Made of faience with blue glaze, situlas were meant to symbolize the female breast, and often contained milk, to be poured out in offerings before a deity, in this case the Aten. (Walters Art Museum / Public domain)
A further delicacy enjoyed on Shavuot is that second nectar that flowed from Israel: honey. This was a popular commodity in ancient Egypt, where we see extensive evidence of honey and beekeeping, both in archaeology and inscriptions. Honey is mentioned many times in the “Amarna Letters”, a collection of tablets inscribed with Akhenaten’s personal foreign correspondence.
Beehives from Egypt were cylindrical and made of mud, with a little hole on one end for the bees to enter, and a removable lid on the other end, to give access to the honey combs. These hives can be seen on Egyptian inscriptions from the Old Kingdom, and from this early time the bee became associated with royalty as the pharaoh adopted the nesu-bity title: “He of the Sedge and the Bee”, referring to the two lands of Egypt. Surprisingly, almost identical hives have been excavated by Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar at the early Israelite site of Tel Rehov, dating to 970-870 BC. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that these same type of hives are still in use in Israel and Egypt today.
Agriculture Comes Full Circle
When Israel once again became a nation in 1948, after two thousand years of collective homelessness, agriculture became the foundation of the new land. This was probably best expressed by the kibbutz, a communal farm on which all members of society lived in a form of social egalitarianism in which everyone worked and enjoyed the collective benefits.
Figure 29: First Fruits Celebration (Bikurim), Meir Shfeyah Youth Village, Israel, ~1930. From: Hadassah Collection on Long Term Loan to the American Jewish Historical Society. (Center for Jewish History, NYC / Public domain)
It was a system very close to the one first practiced by the earliest Israelite communities, around ~1200 BC. These kibbutzim really emerged in the decades before Israel formed, founded by immigrating Zionists from Europe and Russia, and Shavuot was chosen early-on as the day to express their new Jewish connection to their ancestral land.
Repeating a story millennia old, the first farmers of Israel were its heroes, along with its soldiers, and agriculture became the young nation’s rallying cry. Festivals like Shavuot took on new relevance and meaning, and we can see many images from these early years of Israel of the First Fruits Ceremony being enjoyed by young Israeli families, their children bringing forth sheaves, breads, and fruits.
In archive pictures, maidens carry milk jugs and farmers parade their decorated wagons laden with produce, and even display new agricultural technology. These festivities continue today, and even as Israel moves past its former reliance on agriculture into new frontiers of technology, biology, and medicine, membership in kibbutzim is nevertheless on the rise, now totaling over 140,000.
We will delve deeper into the fascinating connections between Akhenaten and Shavuot in part II.
Top image: The origins of the Jewish festival Shavuot’s traditions are obscure. But what if they could be linked to Pharaoh Akhenaten, offering a new view on Moses? Pictures: Representation of Moses’ famous crossing of the sea. Source: Vlastimil Šesták / Adobe stock
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