Past and Present significance of Olive in Jewish Life

To celebrate the great miracle of Chanukah, particularly the miracle with the cruse of oil (which lasted for eight days of Chanukah instead of one), we kindle the Chanukah Lamp during the eight days of Chanukah, using olive oil (though other oils or fats may also be used & candles have become more in vogue now).

It will therefore be timely for us to have a talk about the olive tree and especially olive oil which it produces.

The home of the olive tree is in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea: the Land of Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Tunisia, etc. The history of the olive tree dates back to the dawn of the history of mankind. We all remember the story of the Flood, when Noah sent out a dove from the Ark in order to see whether the waters of the Flood had receded. The dove came back with a leaf of an olive tree in its mouth.

For the people who live in the above-mentioned countries, the olive tree has been of great importance, both because of its fruit and the oil that it produced. Olive oil has been used for food, medicine, and light. Like all fats, olive oil is a high-energy food, and those who could afford it also used it for perfume and as a soap. The ancient Romans used to say that the two most important liquids for good living were wine and olive oil: wine -to take internally, and olive oil-externally, to rub the body with.

In Jewish life olive oil had a special significance, because it was used to light the sacred Menorah, as mentioned above, and also to anoint the King and the Kohen-Gadol (High Priest).

The fruit of the olive tree is very rich in oil. When the olive is ripe, about half of its flesh consists of oil.

The olive tree, when it is laden with fruit, is a beautiful sight. The shining purple-black fruit amid the silvery green leaves gives the olive tree a delightful appearance. It has been a favorite object of artists and painters throughout the ages.

The olive tree lives longer than most fruit trees. There are olive trees in the Holy Land which may be 2,000 years old, dating back to the time of the (Second) Beit Hamikdash The tree likes a hot and dry climate, and a moderate supply of water at the right season. Another wonderful aspect of the olive tree is that parts cut from it will rapidly take root and grow into new trees.

The fruit has a pit. The ripe fruit is purple to black in color. However, before it is fully ripe, it is green, and that is when the olive is usually picked from the tree. The olives may be processed so as to retain their olive-green color, or allowed to change color after it has been picked. In that case, it is kept in buckets for some time. At the plant, the fruits are graded, washed and treated to remove the bitter substance, which the fruit contains when it is picked from the tree. It is then canned and sterilized for eating.

The method of obtaining the oil from the fruit has a variety of processes. The olives are first crushed into pulp, and the pulp is then put under considerable pressure in order to squeeze out the oil. The oil is then filtered through woolen cloth and stored in tanks for about twenty-four hours. This allows the oil to settle, and the sediment is then drawn off from the bottom of the tank. Next the oil is run into other tanks lined with tin or glass. Here the oil is allowed to settle for two to five months. During this period the sediment is drawn off several times.

Timely picking of the fruit is very important for the quality of the oil. The best oil comes from fruit that is picked just after it is ripe and before it turns black. When the skin of a ripe olive is broken, a great deal of the oil comes out from the fruit. Such oil is the highest grade of olive oil called "sublime" or "first expressed" oil. This is the type of oil that was exclusively used for the Menorah.

Altogether about 1,400,000 tons of oil is produced every year in the world at large. Spain and Italy are the leading olive-producing countries, followed by Greece and Tunisia. The Spaniards brought the olive tree to America and it reached California in 1769. The olive tree developed well in California and certain parts of Arizona. However, the American olive is not as rich in oil as the European olive The production of olive oil is limited in America not only by climatic conditions, but also because of the fact that it entails a great deal of manual labor, which is quite expensive here. California produces about 50,000 tons of olives annually, half of which goes into cans in the form of pickled olives, while the other half is turned into oil. In addition, the U.S. imports around 15,000 tons of olive oil every year, besides large quantities of pickled olives, mostly from Italy and Spain.

Turning back to the Holy Land, we all recall that it was praised in the Torah as the "Land of olive oil and (date) honey" The olive is also one of the five fruits with which the Land of Israel was praised, the others being grapes, figs, pomegranates and dates.

In olden days the production of olive oil was very important, and large quantities of it were sold to merchants from neighboring countries. The Tribe of Asher was particularly rich in olive oil. Olives grew in abundance on the slopes of the Judean Mountains and in the Galil. Near Jerusalem there is also the famous Mount of Olives. However, in the course of time, when most of the land lay in ruins, a great deal of the olive growths have been destroyed or neglected. At present, the export of olive oil from Eretz Yisrael amounts to about 500 tons a year, which is about 25 percent of the value of all the oils and fats exported. But the total value of oils of all kinds exported does not amount to more than 1 percent of the value of all exports.

Because of the importance of the olive as a fruit and as a source of oil, and because of the special characteristics of the olive tree, being always green and fresh, etc,. our Prophets and Sages often used the olive tree as a symbol of the Jewish people and Jewish life. The truly blessed Jewish home of the God-fearing man is described as a happy family, where the wife is like a "fruitful vine" in the house, and the children are like "olive plants" around the table. (Psalms 128: 3).

The Jewish nation as a whole has been likened by the Prophet Jeremiah to an evergreen olive tree because, like the olive tree, the Jewish people is a source of light to all (Shemot R. 36).

Oil does not mix with other liquids, and rises to the top. So- our Sages observe-does the Jewish people not mix with other nations, and comes out on top (ibid.)

The olive produces its oil only under pressure; so does the Jewish people repent through suffering (Men. 53b). It is worthy of note that precisely during the bitter Galuth (exile) and under most in-human persecution, the Jewish people produced the Talmud Babli, the Shulchan Aruch, and the vast Rabbinic literature.

Above all, the Torah and Mitzvot themselves are likened to oil, because they are the source of true light in the world. (Devarim R. 7; Kohelet R. 9; etc.).

The "olive" and "oil" qualities of the Jewish people particularly came to light in the dark days of Syrian oppression in the days of Mattityahu and his sons. The Jewish people faced mortal danger at that time both from within and without. The wicked Antiochus tried to extinguish the light of the Torah and Mitzvot by force. His armies invaded the Holy Land, and tried to convert the Jewish people to the Greek pagan way of life. They desecrated the Beit Hamikdash and put out the light of the Menorah. Within the Jewish people there was a movement of assimilators who preached the mixing of Judaism with Greek "culture." But at the height of the religious persecution, the Jewish people rose under the banner of Mattityahu and his sons. They threw out the Greek oppressors and their followers, rededicated the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), and rekindled the Menorah with pure and sanctified olive oil. The purity and holiness of the Jewish people and their own way of life were once again firmly reestablished.

Through the "miracle with the oil" (the small quantity of undefiled oil lasting for eight days, until new oil could be prepared) God joined His faithful children in showing to the whole world that the pure light of the Torah and Mitzvot must continue to shine forth without interruption, and that there is no power on earth that can put out the light of the Torah, and of the Jewish people.