Why Olive Oil?

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting … from evening to morning. (Ex. 27:20)

Why, given the range of vegetable and animal oils available, does the Torah specifically command that we use olive oil to light the menorah?

The answer is, of course, found in the text. Let‘s start with the meaning of light: Light, created on the first day, was the first thing G-d makes that He calls “good.” Light, contrasted with darkness, represents intellect, and wisdom and knowledge and even beauty. Jews are called to be a “Light Unto the Nations.” Light banishes darkness, symbolizing the knowledge that casts out ignorance.

The first time the word for “olives” is found in the Torah, it is near the end of the Flood.

Set the scene: the world has been destroyed, and Noach and his family are in a rickety boat, surrounded by water, and they have no idea what is going on outside. Are they, too, consigned to a watery (albeit postponed) death as well? So what does Noach do? He sends birds out of the ark to try to gather some information.

The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noach knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.

The olive that is first mentioned brings that key element of the menorah – as darkness descended on the world, Noach receives information and knowledge through the olive leaf! And so it makes sense that every evening we light olive oil, reminding us that even in darkness we can find knowledge and the comfort that it brings in the face of the unknown night.

The other word, that for “leaf,” is the same letters as the word for “elevate.” The very first leaf in the Torah are the fig leaves that Adam and Eve use as loincloths – precisely when they, too, have acquired new knowledge (by eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil):

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.

These leaves, just like the leaf brought to Noach by the dove, serve to elevate mankind, moving mankind away from the un-selfconscious animal kingdom and toward human aspects of shame that come from the awareness that our bodies do not reflect how we would like to perceive our souls.

The word for “leaf” and “elevation” are the same (olah). Both are found with the olive leaf that the dove brings to Noach. The Torah ties it all into a bow for us: the Menorah’s light is described (Lev. 24:2) using the very same word: an olah, an elevation.

The combination of the olive and the leaf bring knowledge that leads to the continued enlightenment of man, an enlightenment that is enshrined and institutionalized in the menorah that lights G-d’s home and shines out to the world.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work]

P.S. There are many other symbolic aspects of the menorah as well – I have written on them here, and here, and here.

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