by Rabbi Jo David
Rabbi Jo David is the Executive Director, Jewish Appleseed Foundation
"I am like a green olive tree in the House of God; I trust in the love of God for ever and ever.” Psalms 52:10."
For a humble fruit, olives have made an indelible impression on the Jewish soul and on the customs and writings of the Jewish people. According to the Bible, olives were cultivated in the land we now call Israel even before the settlement of the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 6:11). Olives are one of the seven “native” fruits with which the land of Israel is blessed. In Deuteronomy 8:8, the definition of a good land is given: such a land is one in which there is sufficient water and wheat, barley, vines (grapevines), fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey. Depictions of the seven native foods are popular motifs in Jewish art, and are often found decorating omer counters, which are used to count the seven weeks between Passover (Pesach) and Shavuot.
Olives and olive branches are an ancient symbol of peace. In Genesis 8:11, a dove brings an olive branch to Noah after the flood. This is a symbol that the waters of the flood are receding and that life is returning to earth. Two olive branches with fruit combined with the seven branched menorah are a symbol of Modern Israel and project its hope for peace.
Olives grow in many different places in Israel, and can survive in poor soil that is not hospitable to other types of plants. Olive trees are also very long-lived. There are some olive trees in that are thought to be over 1,000 years old.
As an olive tree ages, its trunk begins to become hollow, while its girth expands. For this reason, olive wood is not a good building material.However, because it is a hard wood with an interesting grain, it is often used for small decorative items and jewelry. In the United States, tzedakah (charity) boxes and yads (torah pointers) made of olive wood have become popular in recent years. Ritual items and jewelry made of olive wood give the owner a feeling of connection to the Land of Israel.
Olive trees bloom in the spring and are ready for harvest at about the time of Sukkot in the fall. Olives emerge as a green fruit, but become black as they age and there are different varieties of olives. Olives used for eating are a different variety than those used to make oil, although all olives are high in oil content.
Olive oil was much prized in Biblical times. When the traveling ark was built by the Israelites in the desert, olive oil was specified as the oil to use for the lighting of the ner tamid – the eternal lamp. (Exodus 27:20) In addition, the Torah goes on to relate that olive oil was to be used, along with the “perfumer’s art” to make oil to anoint the tabernacle, all of the ritual items and Aaron and the other priests as well. (Exodus 30:27-30). Olive oil was also one of the foods that was used as a ritual offering.
According to the Book of Judges, the olive tree was aware of its special relationship to the Jewish people. In the Yotam parable in which different trees are invited to leave their relationship with human beings to become “king of the trees,” the olive tree refuses to deprive humans of the oil that they use to worship God.
After the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, olives continued to have a sacred connection to the Jewish people. Olives were used as a standard measure in Jewish law. Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Hametz u’matza, that the amount of matzah that one is obligated to eat on the first night of Passover is equal to the size of an olive. Later rabbinic commentators discussed the size of such an olive ad nauseum. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z’l, the great modern legal Jewish commentator, ruled that the minimum amount of matzah one must eat at the seder is equal to a machine-made matzah measuring 6 ¼” x 7”. An olive that size puts modern olive canner’s terminology of “extra large, jumbo, and colossal” to shame!
Perhaps one of the most enduring contributions of the humble olive is the Talmudic story of the little jar of olive oil that was used to light the ner tamid in the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of its rededication by the Maccabees. Interestingly, the literary documents that tell the story of Chanukkah – Maccabees I (written in Hebrew) and Maccabees II (written in Greek about 50 years later) say nothing about the “miracle” of the little jar of oil. Rather, both these books stress the military might of the Maccabees and they describe an eight day festival (Sukkot) during which the entire city was lit by huge oil lamps. So much olive oil was burned during this festival that we are told that even the night was as bright as the day.
Some Jews like to use oil burning menorahs at Chanukkah in memory of the oil that was used in the Temple at the time of its rededication. An even more entrenched custom for all Jews is the eating of foods cooked in oil, and especially olive oil, during Chanukkah.
For a discussion of why the Israelites were celebrating Sukkot in December, and how the little jar of oil became part Chanukkah lore, see Chanukah page on the Jewish Appleseed Foundation Web site.