Making Olive Oil
This year we not only lit our menorah with olive oil, we also made the oil ourselves in our shul.
In the past this process has been an adventure as we have had spectacular failures in the making olive oil department.
But this year was different!
Making the olive oil was an amazing experience. First we crushed the olives in a biblical looking machine, then we kneaded them with a modern day kitchen mixer and then we pressed them in a biblical looking press. It was a beautiful moment that had a great energy to it.
But I also want to express a spiritual thought about why we made our own olive oil. It wasn’t just “good shtick.” There is a deep reason why we spent our time making olive oil when we could just as easily have bought it.
The Shulchan Arukh rules (673:1): “All oils are kosher to light the flames of the Menorah.” The Rema comments, “Nevertheless, the most ideal way to perform the mitzvah is with olive oil, shemen zayit mitzvah min hamuvchar.”
Why is olive oil the ideal way in which to light the Menorah?
The Maharal of Prague (R. Judah Lowe b. Bezalel, 1520-1609) offers a powerful reason for why we use olive oil.
He argues that since this mitzvah is being done in order to give thanks for the miracle that Hashem did for us, “then how can we not perform the mitzvah in the most complete and beautiful manner, eikh lo naaseh hamitzvah she-kavu al zeh bishleimut hagamur?” (Ner Mitzvah, 24.)
For this reason he writes that we should use olive oil because “this is how the miracle happened in the Temple.”
Maharal then uses strong language that has not been accepted as binding law. He writes: “It appears to me that a wax candle is not considered a flame at all. The only thing that is considered an appropriate flame is when oil is placed in a utensil and a wick is placed in that utensil. Only this is considered a flame.”
Maharal’s point is that when we light our flames on Chanukah we are trying to bring into our lives the spirit of the Beit Hamikdash in order to remind ourselves of the miracle of oil, zekher le-nes. By lighting the olive oil and not just a regular flame we are trying to recreate the mood and the spirit of the Temple and the feeling of overwhelming attitude towards Gd for the miracle He made for us. For this reason we should use olive oil because that is what was used in our Holy Temple and that is the way in which the miracle happened in the first place.
But what benefit is there for us actually making the olive oil when we can easily purchase it in the store?
Maharal’s basic message is that when we light the olive oil we are recreating the mood and spirit of the Beit Hamikdash. So it thus follows that when we are actually making the olive oil ourselves we are advancing this model and coming closer to that great spiritual moment of the lighting of the Menorah in the time of the Chashmonaim.
In addition to this teaching of the Maharal, there are three basic ways in which our making of the olive oil recreates that ancient scene in the Temple and provides great spiritual benefit for our community.
The more we prepare for the mitzvah by engaging in a process of preparation the more the mitzvah will be on our minds. When we do a mitzvah we shouldn’t just “do a mitzvah”, we should live the mitzvah. The mitzvah should take over our whole body and we should live and breathe the mitzvah. The more the mitzvah is on our minds the more excited we will be to perform the mitzvah. And the more excited we are to perform the mitzvah the greater the spiritual experience and the closer we will come to Hashem. The story is told about the Kotzker rebbe that he was waiting all night on the eve of sukkot to shake the etrog on the morning of the first day of Sukkot. That night the etrog was in a glass case to protect it from the elements. In the morning, the students of the Kotzker rebbe found his hand filled with blood and glass. Overnight the Kotzker rebbe had become so excited to shake the etrog that he literally stuck his hand through the glass. He simply couldn’t wait anymore. He needed to shake the etrog so badly. That’s how much he wanted to do the mitzvah! We should feel that excitement about the lighting of our Chanukah flames as well. The more we engage in the making of the oil the more we are mindful of what we are doing and the more we are bringing the miracle of Chanukah into our consciousness.
So reason number one is that if we make the olive oil ourselves we will not just do the mitzvah but also live the mitzvah.
A second reason for why we should make the olive oil ourselves is based upon a suggestion of R. Nissim of Gerona known as the Ran (d. 1376).
The Ran (Shabbat, 9b, cited by R. Avraham Schorr, Helekach, 36) wonders why did it take so long to make the olive oil. After all, if we novices could make olive oil in one day in our shul certainly those skilled olive oil makers from ancient Israel wouldn’t need a week to make olive oil.
The answer is that any ordinary olive oil wouldn’t suffice for the holy Menorah of the Beit Hamikdash.
The Mishnah (Menachot 85b) teaches: “Tekoa is the best place for oil.” The reason that Tekoa had such great olive oil is because it was in the territory of the tribe of Asher. The Talmud in Menachot explains that Asher was promised in the blessings of the Torah to have overflowing olive oil, (Devarim 33:24): “[Asher] bathes his foot in oil, ve-tovel be-shemen raglo.”
Based upon this passage from the Talmud, which praises the olive oil of Tekoa, the Ran explains that they needed to wait 8 days for new oil because they wanted to get only Tekoa oil. The Ran argues that in order to go to Tekoa and pick out the best olives for oil and return to the Temple it would take them eight days.
This is somewhat difficult to understand since Tekoa is not that far from the Temple, its actually only 16 kilometers south. (Of course, if they were driving my car from Jerusalem to Tekoa it might have taken more than a week!!!) Nevertheless his basic point is that just any olive oil wasn’t good enough. For the Menorah we needed Tekoa oil.
The Menorah in the Temple needed most special and the most pure oil.
There is an expression “good enough.” Good enough is not good enough when it comes to a mitzvah. For a mitzvah we need to strive for the best and the purest. For every mitzvah we need the equivalent of Tekoa oil.
Technically speaking on Chanukah we only need to light one flame every single night for the entire household. But the rabbis tell us that there is a way to do this mitzvah that is the most beautiful way, mehadrin min hamehadrin. The most beautiful way for Ashkenazic Jews to perform the mitzvah is for every single person in the household to light one extra flame for each night of Chanukah.
Today it has become the accepted custom that everyone performs the mitzvah in this manner, the mehadrin min hamehadrin fashion. On the eighth night of Chanukah we don’t just light one flame; we light eight flames. When we do that we are saying, “good enough” is not good enough.
Our holy ancestors accepted this custom upon themselves because they were looking for the equivalent of Tekoa oil. They wanted to do the mitzvah in the best way possible.
And this is why we should also make our own olive oil. We don’t want to light our Menorah with stale olive oil that has been sitting on a shelf in a store for 6 months. We want the purest oil and the best oil for our Menorah. When we light the Menorah in our homes Gd is coming into our homes. We don’t want to serve Him stale oil. When we serve Gd we offer up the best and the purest.
So reason number two is that we want the purest oil for our Chanukah flames.
Reason number three why there is spiritual significance to us making our own olive oil is based upon a Talmudic text that tells the story of the sage, R. Hiyya, praising his own accomplishments (Baba Meziah 85b):
“To which R. Hiyya rejoined: ‘Would you dispute with me, who achieved that the Torah should not be forgotten in Israel? What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax cords], trapped deers, whose flesh I gave to orphans, and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote the five books [of Moses]. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught the five books to five children, and the six orders [of the Talmud] to six children. And I bade them: ‘Until I return, teach each other the Pentateuch and the Mishnah;’ and thus I preserved the Torah from being forgotten in Israel.”
The Vilna Gaon (cited by R. Schorr, 36) asks: Why did R. Hiyya need to trap the deer and personally prepare the parchment skins for the children? Why didn’t he just purchase the parchments ready made?
The Vilna Gaon answers that R. Hiyya desired that that the Torah remain for eternity and that it never be forgotten. In order to achieve this goal it is necessary that the entire preparation from beginning to end be suffused with holiness, without any blemishes. Thus, R. Hiyya himself engaged in the preparation of the parchment so that it all be made with holiness for the sake of heaven and this is what caused the Torah to not be forgotten from the land of Israel.
The actions of R. Hiyya are teaching us that if we want something to be eternal and lasting then we have to put our whole heart into it and we have to make sure it is pure from beginning to end. The entire process needs to be holy in order to guarantee eternality.
So these are the three reasons why there is great spiritual value in us making our own olive oil.
We don’t want to just do the mitzvah. We want to live the mitzvah.
We don’t want just any old oil. We want to make the best oil for Hashem.
If we want to achieve a lasting effect of the mitzvah than the entire process needs to be suffused with holiness.
This year we celebrated Thanksgivukah which is a unique phenomenon for the American – Jewish community. I loved Thanksgivukkah so much that I want to celebrate this holiday every year.
Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday, but Thanksgivukah…that’s gevaldik.
Thanksgiving –even without Thanksgivukkah is special. It is a holiday for which we American Jews have a lot to be grateful about. Jews have been so safe in this country. Physically we have been safe, but spiritually there is what to be scared about. Jews are disappearing and merging in with our wonderful hosts. According to a recent Pew Survey (October, 2013) 72% of non-Orthodox Jews who have gotten married since the year 2000 have chosen to marry a non-Jewish spouse. This number alone presents a scary threat to the future of the Jewish people in America since many children of intermarried couples don’t grow up to live as Jews.
There have been a lot of theories as to how to respond to the devastating news from the pew survey.
But the short answer for our community –for our long-term viability and continuity -- is that the best way to respond to a spiritual threat is by putting our heart and soul into the performance of a mitzvah. Some other communities think that that means we adopt stringencies and extreme positions, but it is my belief that that won’t work in the long run. In the long run the best course is to try to perform each the mitzvah to the fullest, with our entire heart and soul.
That is kind of the way many people celebrated Thanksgiving this year. It wasn’t just Thanksgiving. This year for many it was Thanksgivukkah! It was special. It had a different focus and different feel. We knew it wasn’t coming again so we put our heart and soul into it.
But we never know if we are going to get a chance to do a mitzvah again so we always have to do each mitzvah as if it won’t come again for another 77,000 years.
Every mitzvah has to be like a Thanksgivukkah mitzvah!
This is why we make our own olive oil in the shul. We want to put our hearts and souls into each and every mitzvah! And if do that, then we can be sure that our people will last 77,000 years and beyond!
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