I noticed, during the high holy days, that the images of purification in the prophets seem to focus on lye (bor, or borit), which is sodium hydroxide, as the symbol of harsh cleansing. See, for example, Isaiah 1:25, Jeremiah 2:22, and Malachi 3:2. What about soap? It is not clear if soap was known in biblical times. Job complains that it is hopeless for him to press his case against God (9:29-31):
It will be I who am in the wrong; why then should I waste effort? If I washed with soap, cleansed my hands with lye, You would dip me in muck till m clothes would abhor me.
Only in this passage do we find a cleaning product other than lye, mei sheleg (literally snow-water) which many translations call soap. However, that translation may be an anachronism. We do know that lye, made by extracting plant ashes with water, has been used for various cleaning and industrial processes since ancient times. It is not known for sure just when it was discovered that fats cooked with lye yielded a substance capable of emulsifying oils and thus cleaning clothes and skin apparently in the Roman period.
In any case, olive oil soap became a significant product of Eretz Yisrael, one of the few well-developed industries in pre-Zionist Palestine. Nablus soap, produced not only in Nablus but throughout the surrounding area, was exported to the entire middle east and there were even years when it was necessary to import oil to cover the demand for raw material. Today, of course, the supermarket aisle devoted to soaps and cleaning materials reflects the wonders of the chemical industry and of globalization. Who knows where these substances come from or what they are made of? Why use an awkward block of dull tan local soap, cut with a wire and wrapped in newsprint, when one can have the fragrant, pastel tablets imprinted with trademarks from exotic far away places like Cincinnati (headquarters of Procter and Gamble).
Meanwhile, in Arab villages where olives are a major crop, homemade soap did not disappear. And now, with the rise of the market both internally and for tourists for local, boutique products, local olive oil soap is making a comeback. There are a number of small producers, Jewish and Arab, who sell their wares scented with local herbs, in colorful packaging, with faux-homey descriptions of their benefits, in souvenir and gift shops, cosmetic boutiques, and even to exporters. Perhaps the most successful has been Savta Jamila (Grandma Jamila), a Druze woman in her 70s who tells her story to visitors to her shop in the village of Pekiin: she dropped out of school after first grade, to follow her natural aptitude and interest in learning the properties of the medicinal herbs that grow so plentifully in the Galilee. Already as a teenager, she was known for her expertise. Later, she combined this knowledge with traditional soap-making techniques practiced in the village, to produce a line of natural soaps with healing qualities. The walls of her shop are lined with framed testimonials from professors and dermatologists around the world (which, she is quick to point out, she cannot read, as she is illiterate). The manufacturing operation has moved out of the village, to a modern building in the nearby Tefen industrial park, and much of the output is exported.
Meanwhile, if you stop in any of the shops in Pekiin, you can find local products for sale without color brochures: olives, olive oil, blocks of olive oil soap, local herbs. If you ask about Savta Jamila, they will tell you that her soap is no different from theirs its just that shes a whiz at marketing. And given that she succeeds in selling diminutive blocks of what is, after all, soap, for $3.50 apiece, they seem to have a point.