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Hard Pressed to Bring Forth Light

Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene

There is a widespread Jewish custom to eat oily foods on Chanukah. Favorite foods such as doughnuts and latkes recall the essential role that oil — specifically, olive oil — plays in the miraculous story of this festival. How did the humble olive come to occupy so central a place in this holiday?

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Photo: Shutterstock.

I n Maoz Tzur, the paytan notes how “v’timu kol hashemanim — [the Greeks] defiled all the oils.” Why was the specific goal of the antagonists to locate and then contaminate all the oils within the Beis Hamikdash? Why contaminate rather than to simply destroy them?

There are other allusions to oil within the Chanukah story. Significantly, the pure jar of olive oil carried the seal of the Kohein Gadol, who was consecrated to this position using shemen hamishchah, anointing oil. The Chashmonaim heroes were themselves Kohanim, priests from the Tribe of Levi, first consecrated to minister in the Sanctuary using anointing oil. Likewise, the significance of the name “Chanukah” — and its Hebrew date — relates to the inauguration of the Sanctuary in the wilderness (pushed back until the 1st of Nissan), but which also originally involved sanctification with oil.

Nowadays, the Rabbinic mitzvah of Chanukah is to light every night of this eight-day festival — with the optimal light of choice being that of oil and more specifically the olive oil that was the medium of the Chanukah miracle.

What, then, is the deeper symbolism within the olive and its oil that is integral to the story and festival of Chanukah?

The Special Fruit

Let us examine more deeply the unique properties of the zayis, olive.

Firstly, the olive’s importance derives from being classified as one of the Shivas Haminim, seven special fruits of the Holy Land. It is the fruit whose volume is chosen by Chazal to define the requisite measurement regarding food, such as food eaten for a mitzvah or quantity that requires the after-meal blessings.

But the olive is more than just a fruit. Remarkably, the olive is the only natural produce of the ground that is not only a source of food but also contains an additional important use. Pressing the olive extracts the oil within to fuel the production of light.

Extracting this oil from within raises the status of the olive above that of simply a fruit. This is demonstrated by the Torah’s description eretz zayis shemen, “the land of oil olives.” The inclusion of the olive within the Shivas Haminim is primarily because of the oil trapped within. Often, Scriptural mentions of oil refer to olive oil showing that it is considered Hashem’s favorite oil.


Secondly, the production of olive oil marks a transformation of something bitter into something sweet. The wood and olive leaves are bitter. But the oil that is extracted from the fruit can be used with sweet foods and spices. In addition, the light from olive oil is itself synonymous with sweetness: “The light is sweet.”

In truth, the transition from bitter to sweet has its parallel in the voyage from darkness to light. A beautiful allusion is to be found in the very first Torah mention of the olive, when the dove returned to Noach after its search for dry land following the Mabul. This bird came back at dusk with an olive branch in its mouth. The oil extracted from these olives fueled light that drove away the darkness. Implicit within this was the dove’s lesson: “Let my sustenance be bitter like an olive, but let it come at the hands of the Holy One Blessed is He, rather than sweet as honey at the hands of man.”

Thirdly, both the olive and its oil display the quality of something set apart and distinct. All trees accept grafts from other types of tree — so that the grafted branch later produces fruits — with one notable exception: the olive tree, which only accepts branches of its own kind. No foreign branches can be grafted onto the olive tree. This quality is mirrored in the properties of olive oil. All liquids typically freely mix with each other — with the notable exception of oil. Oil does not mix. It floats above other liquids such as water remaining detached, separate and untouchable. Indeed, it remains in its place and will typically rise to the top within the container.

Clash of Worldviews

The battle between the Greeks and Yisrael reflected the ideological struggle waged between their respective worldviews. The Greeks prized secular knowledge. They expended much effort to illuminate the beauty of the physical world. They contributed greatly to the world’s knowledge of the natural sciences. In their mindset, it was man, with his Olympian body and rational mind, that were to be deified by being placed at the center of the universe. Despite their enlightenment, at best, this Greek wisdom only constituted chochmah chitzoniyus, superficial wisdom. But in the eyes of the Jewish People, not only was this not considered light; it was characterized as the epitome of darkness.

This was because Klal Yisrael see their supreme goal to illuminate the beauty of the spiritual rather than the physical world. Consequently, they place Hashem, and the Divine wisdom of the Torah, at the center of the universe. Their role was delving deeply to penetrate the chochmah peninius, inner wisdom, where man relates to the illumination of the spiritual realm, which is associated with the inner light of the neshamah, soul.

This goes to the central struggle at the time of the Chanukah story. The Misyavnim, Jewish Hellenists, were bent on the acculturation to Greek values, wisdom, and lifestyle. But the small band of the Chashmonaim courageously fought to preserve full fidelity to Torah and mitzvos. They refused to restrict their vision of reality to the natural realm of the physical. They wanted to transcend that realm by relating to the inner world of the spirit.

And the metaphor that captures the essential element of the Chanukah victory was the olive.

The Inner Light

The beauty of an olive, at first glance, appears to be in its use as a fruit. But that is only if it is viewed through a superficial, external Greek perspective, one that exclusively considers the outer, physical form of the fruit (parallel to the body).

The Jewish approach calls for going beyond the outer, superficial layer to discern “the inside story.” This requires crushing the outer shell of the olive to unveil the hidden spiritual dimension of the oil lying within (parallel to the soul). The extraction of oil comes to produce light — symbolic of the light contained within the wisdom of Torah.

The Jewish People, in different respects, are compared to every one of the Shivas Haminim. Their identification with the olive is based on the pasuk of Yirmiyahu that states about Klal Yisrael, “Hashem has called your name zayis ra’anan, leafy olive tree, beautiful with shapely fruit.”

Likened to the olive that must be pounded, crushed, and battered mercilessly to extract the oil within, Klal Yisrael has historically been subject to difficult trials and tribulations whose purpose was to elicit its inner essence and, upon deviation from the right path, motivate it to repent. This persecution and harsh treatment was to bring out their true colors. It serves to reveal to the world “the stuff that the Jewish People are really made of.” In this regard, olive oil is symbolic of the “inner light” — a reference to the spiritual qualities latent within the Jew waiting to be released is beautifully aligned with the light of Torah wisdom reserved for Klal Yisrael.

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