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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Seven Species VI

Galilee Diary #181;
May 16, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Not only is the olive one of the most distinctive features of the landscape of the whole Mediterranean region, with its silvery green leaves and beautifully gnarled trunks; not only is it a staple of the diet of the region – as an easily preserved (by salt curing) vegetable and as the prime cooking oil; not only does it serve as an important cosmetic and medicinal oil; but it was, for thousands of years, the major light source, the fuel for the ubiquitous oil lamps found in archaeological excavations from every historical period. It is not surprising, therefore, that olive oil also took on religious significance, as the anointing oil for priests and kings: in ancient Israel, kings were not crowned, they were anointed. And, of course, the sacred lamp, the menorah, in the Temple, was fueled with the finest and purest olive oil, specially certified by the priests: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting…” [Exodus 27:20]

While the Book of Maccabees – the historical account of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids in the second century B.C.E. - does not mention the well-known miracle of the little jug of oil that burned for eight days, the Talmud (edited about 500 years later) tells the story:

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they desecrated all the oil that was there. When the Hasmoneans overcame them, they looked and found only one jug of oil, enough to light [the menorah] for one day; but a miracle occurred and they lit [the menorah] from this [oil] for eight days…

-Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b

What no one ever asks is: “then what?” In other words, what happened at the end of eight days? Did they obtain more oil? If so, why did it take eight days? It turns out that someone did indeed ask, and found an answer:

a. In Deuteronomy 33:24, Moses blesses the tribe of Asher thus: “Most blessed of sons be Asher; may he be the favorite of his brothers; may he dip his foot in oil.” The territory of Asher is the western Galilee, and is indeed known as a source of fine and plentiful olive oil. Shorashim is in the land of Asher. The view from my bedroom window is a valley-bottom covered with olive groves as far as the eye can see; our pantry is stocked with a year’s supply of locally pressed oil.

b. The Mishnah, tractate Menachot 8:4, explains in detail the process for producing olive oil and the characteristics of the nine different grades, based on three quality levels (tree ripened, ripened on the roof after picking, and stored until they go soft), and three processing methods for each (crushing and allowing the oil to flow out without pressure; pressing the crushed olives to squeeze out more oil; and grinding and re-pressing to squeeze out the residue). For each quality level, only the oil extracted by the first method, without pressure, is fine enough for lighting.

c. Mishnah Menachot 8:3 states that the finest oil, used for the Temple, was from Tekoah. Most sources identify Tekoah as a town in Judea, southeast of Jerusalem. However, in the Responsa of the Gaonim (the chief rabbis of Babylonia in the middle ages), Tekoah is taken as referring to a town in the Galilee – apparently based on the blessing of Asher in Deuteronomy. This same source goes on to suggest that Tekoah was a four-day journey from Jerusalem. Thus, once the Temple was reconquered and purified, it took eight days for a messenger to get to Tekoah in the Galilee, obtain a stock of pure oil, and return to refuel the menorah

The rabbis may have tried to “dehistoricize” Chanukah by substituting the miracle of the oil for the victory celebration described in the Book of Maccabees, but they couldn’t “degeographize” it: the miracle itself became another expression of our rootedness in the landscape of Eretz Yisrael.

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