The menorah has long been one of Judaism’s most important symbols, being the emblem on the coat of arms of Israel. It is a seven-branched, semi-circular lampstand, often covered in gold, topped with seven candles or oil lamps. It is most associated with Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of “Lights.” However, the origins of the “golden lampstand” go back to the Torah of Moses, specifically the book of Exodus. These origins are still cloaked in mystery.
Nothing about the menorah’s origin is explained in the Torah. In Exodus, Moses reveals his vision from Yahweh and simply commands it to be made from solid gold and placed in the holy tabernacle. However, by connecting Moses and his unique design to the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, we can make much sense of it. We can explain its design, function, name, and most importantly, why it held such a special place in the heart of Moses, and why it continues to hold such a special place in Judaism, such as the Ner Tamid in modern synagogues.
The menorah is one of the most ancient symbols in Judaism. We can see it in artistic depictions through the ages, from mosaic synagogue floors to Roman carvings to Medieval Bibles. The original golden menorah was in the Tabernacle of Moses (Exodus 27:21, Numbers 8:1-4). The tabernacle was a tent-temple that Moses had constructed in the Sinai wilderness after the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. Among other ritual objects contained within it was to be a golden seven-branched lampstand called a menorah. This tabernacle was administered by Moses and his high-priest Aaron, as well as the rest of the Levite priests, who daily filled the seven lamps of the Menorah with fresh olive oil to burn ceaselessly, creating an eternal and holy light to Yahweh.
The first mention of the menorah in the Bible is in Exodus 25:31-37, when Moses is on Mount Sinai and Yahweh reveals his vision of the golden object: “And you shall make a menorah of pure gold. The menorah shall be made of hammered work—its shaft and its branches, its cups, its ornaments, and its flowers shall be part of it—and six branches coming out from its sides, three of the menorah’s branches from its one side and three of the menorah’s branches from its second side, three almond-shaped cups in the one branch, with ornament and flower, and three almond-shaped cups in the other branch, with ornament and flower… All of it one hammered work of pure gold.”
There is no direct rational explanation for the menorah. It stands as a unique object in the Israelite cult of Yahweh and has no obvious antecedents. Due to its description as having flower decorations and almond-shaped cups, it has long been assumed to be symbolic of growth and flowering, or even of the fiery Burning Bush vision of Moses.
Akhenaten and Amarna
To find the secrets to the origin of the menorah, we must turn to the heretic Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten. His short seventeen-year reign saw more changes to Egyptian life than had occurred in the previous seventeen centuries. He ruled from 1354-1337 BCE. His father had been the richest king in the world, and he inherited a kingdom of gold, slaves, and servants. During his regime, he abandoned the traditional gods of Egypt and relocated the capital to Amarna, a new city he built from the ground up. He introduced new art forms and the earliest monotheism, worshipping only Ra in his form as the Aten sun disk. After his reign ended, he was branded a heretic and traitor to the country. His images were desecrated, and his city was dismantled.
The menorah makes so much sense when placed within its proper context during the reign of Akhenaten, who I believe continued his life under the newly-adopted name of Moses. Numerous design elements from Amarna show evidence of prefiguring the menorah, the most obvious being the circular disk of the Aten. Both produced light, and the seven arms of the lampstand could have easily represented the many arms of the Aten.
Another similar design element comes from the tomb of Mery-Ra I, the High Priest of Amarna. In the scene, the king and queen offer sacrifices to the Aten. The fascinating element in the image is two sets of semi-circular arcs that appear just below the Aten disk and above its many arms and hands. These arcs recall the menorah design and connect the light of the Aten with the light of the menorah.
Further similar design elements at Amarna include the popular Shebyu collars, made of gold and other fine materials, which were solar symbols and appear very similar to the menorah. As seen on the neck of the priest Panahesy, they very closely resembled the menorah. In fact, the symbol for gold in Egyptian, nebu, was a semi-circular, golden necklace with seven beads; and the nearly identical word, neb, meant “Lord,” the symbol for which was a semi-circular-shaped basket. Both are very reminiscent of the menorah design.
There are also similar semi-circular designs under the famous Window of Appearances and reconstructed from numerous Amarna homes, which are often combined with semi-circular floral bouquets of lotus flowers, papyri clusters, and even long-necked geese. In many of these, there are seven distinct branches, or flowers, similar to the seven branches on the menorah.
Further floral similarities can be seen at Amarna, where numerous painted floral designs have been recovered from floors and walls. Even the Sema Tawy symbol can be seen at Amarna, often with seven distinct branches. This symbol is of papyri and lotus flowers being tied together, representing the unification of Egypt. Such designs can be seen on oil lamps and vessels from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who was the nephew of Akhenaten. These vessels and lamps often have numerous design elements that foreshadow the menorah, including the nebu symbol, the neb symbol, and the multi-branching Sema Tawy.
There are even numerous depictions of seven, identical oil vessels lined up in a row, usually on offering tables before the Aten sun disk. These recall the seven, sacred oils used by Old Kingdom Egyptian funerary priests.
Ancient Egyptian Lamps
“And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron, and you shall say to him: when you put up the lamps, the seven lamps shall shed light opposite the front of the menorah.’” [Numbers 8:1-2]
We know that oil-burning lamps, typically in small clay containers, bowls, or handled-jars, were a common feature not only in ancient Egypt, but also across the Middle East. These types of lamps used a floating wick system, in which woven wicks would be soaked in salt water and then burned while floating in the oil. The menorah had seven almond-shaped “cups” for oil in which seven wicks were to freely float.
Evidence has been found at Amarna for the use of floating wicks in oil lamps. Fragments of oil vessels have been found, as well as actual woven floating wicks. Barry Kemp notes in his groundbreaking The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People that “at the Workmen’s Village, where textile preservation was better than in the main city, many twisted wicks of linen have been found, some of them smeared with incense. They presumably took up oil and burnt in simple lamps, sputtering, fizzing and giving off their own smell.”
Out of more than 500 pottery shards catalogued at Amarna, Pamela Rose notes that bowls with “out-turned” rims most frequently contained traces of burnt incense and that general burning can be detected on numerous simple clay bowls, suggesting their original use as lamps (the oil would have been mixed with salt, fat, and incense). This corresponds to the numerous tomb inscriptions from Amarna showing bowls atop of offerings with flames coming out from them.
I suggest that when all seven lamps were lit, the glow produced would merge with the solid gold branches below to create a glowing circle of light within the sacred space, just like the Aten did. It was a suitable substitute, with the shining gold and the seven flames burning bright. A similar branching oil lamp was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
A last point to be made concerning the design and light of the menorah was its connection to the Akhet symbol, which was of primary import to Akhenaten. Akhet has been translated as “horizon” or “sun-on-the horizon”. He used it in the holy name of his sole god: Living Ra-Horus of the Double Akhet, who rejoices in the Akhet, in his name of Light, which is in the Aten. The name of his city Amarna was technically called Akhet-Aten, which meant “Horizon of the Aten.” We can compare the neb and nebu symbols and also the incense bowl-lamps so common around Amarna to the akhet all of which share the same semi-circular design.
This idea of light on the horizon was of vital importance to the king, who viewed the morning dawning and the evening setting of the Aten as the most potent times of communication through singing and offerings. The fact that the semi-circular Akhet symbol so powerfully prefigures the menorah, both in design and function as light-source, is evidence that the heretic king was in fact, I believe, Moses, who retained this important idea of his youth in a new, immortal way.
It is highly likely that Moses retained his solar ideology from his days at Amarna in the semi-circular/multi-armed/plant-like/bright-shining golden design for the menorah. Even more fascinating is that, I think, he retained a solar element hidden within the very name of the menorah. I believe it is possible that the word ‘menorah’ could have derived originally from two Egyptian concepts, each having formed an integral component of the new “hybrid” word created by Akhenaten-Moses. Let us break down the word into its components:
The word “mn” in ancient Egyptian, pronounced MEN, meant “established”, or “enduring”. The derivative word “mn-w” (the plural of MEN, pronounced “MEN-oo” and occasionally spelled men-u), could mean several derivative things, depending on the specific hieroglyphs used.
Petty notes that the most common meanings of the word men-u were “monuments” and “trees/forest”. During the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), the word mnw appears in numerous titles for buildings, including the Akh-mnw of Thutmose III at Karnak. This name means, “the shining of monuments.” The Akh-mnw of Thutmose III had engraved on its walls numerous depictions of plants, and the scenes are collectively called the “Botanical garden of Thutmose III”.
Trees were also a frequent component at Amarna and were a recognized and important part of the cult of the Aten. Dozens of tree “pits” have been excavated at Amarna by Kemp and his team, particularly near and in temples and palaces and altars and chapels. There is even a row of seven trees found in the North Palace, nearly identical to the Menorah design, and a row of seven trees in the palatial home of the Steward of the Royal House, Mery-Ra II.
Further evidence connecting the word Men-u with Akhenaten comes from his tradition of naming his temples Men-u, which he did during his early years at Karnak. He built four temples there during his first five years of rule: the Gem-pa-Aten (The Aten is found), the Hwt Bnbn (Mansion of the Ben-Ben stone), the Rwd-menu-en-aten-r-en-hehe (Sturdy are the monuments of the Aten sun disk for eternity), and the Teni-menu-en-aten-r-en-hehe (Exalted are the monuments of the Aten sun disk for eternity).
The second component of the word Menorah is Rah. Conventional theories link this word to the Hebrew word Orah, which means, “light.” However, no reason for this origin is ever given. I believe they (“Rah” and “O-rah”) actually derive originally from Ra, the name of the sun god worshipped throughout Egyptian history, and by Akhenaten in particular. He ferociously advocated his own version of Ra, to which he applied a long complicated name, and called himself Nefer-kheper-u-Ra Wa-en-Ra, which meant “Beautiful are the Manifestations of Ra, the Sole one of Ra.”
I believe that Akhenaten retained the name of his former god from Egypt within the name of the menorah, in the second component, Rah. He would therefore be able to remember the holy name and its life-giving light, all without contradicting his monotheistic attitudes, which had by that time evolved to worshipping Yahweh alone.
Menorah would have thus originally been translated as “Monuments of Ra” or the “Trees of Ra.” This multi-dimensional name would have recalled Moses’ grandest memories and revolutionary ideas he had back in Egypt, when he was the most powerful man in the world, the “Sole one of Ra”—before his fall and eventual redemption.
The linking of the menorah to Akhenaten and the Amarna regime helps to demonstrate how probable it was that Akhenaten was Moses. He would have continued his life in exile while his country recovered from his dramatic and perilous decisions. As an old man, I believe, he returned to Egypt to lead his suffering people out during the reign of Ramesses I.
Once they were in the wilderness, he built his Tabernacle for his new monotheistic cult. In the holy inner section of the sacred tent, he built a large, golden lampstand holding seven oil lamps with floating wicks, the arms of the lampstand having floral designs. When lit, this impressive object created a circular glow of light, and when combined with the shining gold metal, would have created a brilliant glowing orb—exactly like Moses had always remembered the Aten, the god of his youth.
We can explain the menorah’s design, shape, name, function, and most importantly: why it held such a special place in the heart of Moses. Ideas of the Aten and Ra, kingship, gold, papyri, flowers, sacred trees, monuments, fire, light, lamps, sacred oils, the akhet, and the number seven—all combined and converged in the mind of an exiled king to produce, perhaps, the most unique religious artifact in history.
That all of these ideas may have existed simultaneously in his mind, complementing and reinforcing each other, attests to his highly abstract personality. Together they would have held a special place in the heart of the founder of Judaism, creating a symbol that was infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It would eventually become one of Judaism’s most enduring symbols, and it all began in the mind of Akhenaten-Moses.
Jonathon A. Perrin is the author of Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told, available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.