Olives — the fruit of light and metaphor

As today is the first day of Chanukah, I think it a fitting time to reflect on the virtues of olives and olive oil; their benefits, and some of their hidden meanings.

The story of Chanukah is the age-old struggle of the Jewish people to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world. According to the Talmudic legend, when the Hasmoneans recaptured and cleansed the Temple following their victory over the Syrians, they were able to find only a single vessel of oil sufficient for one day's lighting of the Menorah. But, as the story goes, a miracle occurred, and it burned for eight days. The nightly kindling of the Menorah with its increasingly brighter light has become a symbol for both our physical and spiritual resistance to tyranny and assimilation. Jewish tradition has preserved this twofold concept of resistance. The heroic Maccabean military triumph is counter-balanced by the words of the prophet Zechariah: "Not by might and not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord (4:6)."

The olive tree is unusual in having two flowers for each fruit, perhaps hinting at the idea that it takes both physical and spiritual strength in order to bear fruit. The Jewish people are compared to the olive tree by Jeremiah, who said;

"Why should My beloved be in My House? She has done vile deeds, many, and the holy flesh is passed from you; when you do evil, you rejoice. The Lord named you 'A leafy olive tree, Fair, with goodly fruit.' But with a great roaring sound He has set it on fire, and its boughs are broken. The Lord of Hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because of the evil wrought by the House of Israel and the House of Judah, who angered Me by sacrificing to Baal" (11:15-17).

Rabbi Yohanan teaches: "Why are the People of Israel compared to an olive? To teach you that just as an olive does not give its oil except when crushed, so too the Jewish people do not repent and return to God except after being crushed by suffering" (Menachot 53b). The olive tree is not like other trees whose fruit ripens little by little. The fruit of an olive tree takes a long time to ripen; but then it ripens all at once, producing abundant fruit. So too, the Jewish people will finally repent in large numbers (Menachot 53b). Just as the purpose of the olive tree is fulfilled at its end, so will the Jewish people's purpose be fulfilled at the end. May we merit to repent in love and joy, out of expansiveness and with all good things, rather than through the ordeal of suffering. Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi said: "Why is Israel compared to an olive tree? Because just as the leaves of the olive tree do not fall off either in summer or in winter, the Jewish people shall not be case off, either in this world or in the world-to-come" (Menachot 53b). Thus, while Jeremiah's comparison of the Jewish people to an olive tree forbodes terrible suffering (in the form of the tree being set on fire and its boughs broken), there is also an element of eternal perserverance and eventual redemption inherent in its symbolism. The olive tree, a survivor in the extreme, thrives in conditions of poor soil, draught, and intense heat. This is indeed an apt metaphor for the Jewish people, who have survived harsh circumstances throughout our history, and who have been watered by the deep waters of the Torah.

The connections and contrast between olives and olive oil is also indicative of the transformation that occurrs through the process of crushing olives in order to make olive oil. The olive fruit is a bitter fruit, which cannot be eaten directly from the tree. Rather, it must be brined in order to be eaten, or crushed into olive oil. In contrast to the bitter olive fruit, olive oil is considered to be sweet in taste. The rabbis in the Midrash note about olives and olive oil that what began as bitter ends as sweet (Sefer HaShirim Rabbah 1:2). It is reported that the Seer of Lublin said, "the olive represents the high spiritual state where a person's devotion is so intense that he is absorbed into the divine nothingness, so that each moment he forgets and remembers nothing. Olive oil, said the seer, represents the state of drawing this exalted divine light down to where memory returns in the form of wisdom" (Rosh Hashanah LaIlanot, p.60). This comparison of olive oil to divine light is both metaphorical and very literal — for olive oil is litterally the fuel that was burned in the Temple lights. The rabbis taught: "Just as olive oil [used for lamps] brings light to the world, so do the People of Israel bring light to the world, as it says: Nations shall walk by your light'" (Isaiah 60:3) (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:2).

There are many more meanings of olives and olive oil that I have not even addressed; the olive branch representing Peace, and the olive leaf in the mouth of the dove which Noah sent out symbolizing the regeneration of the earth following the flood. For more insights into olive oil and its many meanings, I recommend Cafe Neisharim's teaching on The Wisdom of Olive Oil. Then, too, there are the culinary, medicinal, and cosmetic applications of olives and olive oil which could fill volumes. Hardly a day goes by without a new scientific revelation regarding the benefits of olive products and their constituent ingredients for health and wellbeing. Heart health, skin benefits, immunity boosting powers, and anti-aging support are some of the most studied and widely cited applications of the olive tree. Whether as a food, for fuel, or as a metaphor for light, peace and perserverance, the olive cannot be beaten (but it can be crushed — pun intended). It is truly a miraculous fruit. Who knew that something so rich in taste was so deep in meaning as well! I hope you have an olive oil filled Chanukah, one in which the light from the flames shine out in contrast to the darkness of the Winter Solstice, and one in which the bitterness represented by the olive fruit is transformed into the sweetness represented by the olive oil.

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