A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat T’tsaveh 5784

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.                                                    Exodus 27:20

Unlike all the other materials itemized for the construction of the Mishkan which were a one-time donation, the requirement here is an ongoing obligation. A very specific kind of material must be used for burning a perpetual light in the Tabernacle, as other sources of oil also existed including sesame seed, flax, and animal fats, which were regularly used in the Ancient Near East. The oil used for the lamps here had to be “clear”, that is, refined so as to be free of lees.

This pure oil was produced by pounding the olives in a mortar with a pestle rather than by grinding them in a mill hence the Hebrew word katit, “beaten.” The oil was then passed through a strainer, resulting in a clear refined oil that burned brighter and produced a minimum of smoke. The biblical commentator Bachya pointed out that this is in contrast to the everyday practice in which clear all of oil was reserved for culinary purposes, while the cruder type was used as fuel for lamps.

Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch in their Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols write:

In ancient Israel, oil, primarily made from pressed olives, was considered one of the three necessities of life together with food and clothing. It was used as a food, cosmetic, fuel, and medicine, as well as an export item…. Oil is one of the blessings God promises as a reward of faithfulness. Because of its value and centrality, olive oil symbolized honor, joy, and favor.

This emphasis on the purity of the olive oil and the process by which it was created gave rise to its use in a metaphoric way to describe the people of Israel. This was captured by the author of the biblical commentary Tzror HaMor (1) whose personal experience inspired what he wrote:

Israel is likened to an olive which yields up its oil only when it is crushed, for Israel reveals its true virtues only when it is made to suffer. The Jews are also likened to oil which never mixes with any other liquid but always remains on top, for the Jews always remain above the other nations and never mingle with them. It is remarkable that although they have had to suffer torture and oppression, the Jews have remained on a level high above that of their oppressors and steadfastly refused to mingle with them.

Tzror HaMor understands the significance in the crushed olive in that it only shows what it’s “made of’ when it is pressed. The writer also reflects on the other property of oil, its ability to remain apart from other liquids. While we may not feel as adamant in imposing the same strict separation from others as he does, and also have a greater appreciation of the surrounding societies in which we reside, the necessity of preserving unique aspects of Jewish identity remain undimmed.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg

1 Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440–1508) was a preacher in Castille. At the time of the expulsion of Jews from Spain he took refuge in Portugal, where he lived a sort time before King Manuel I in 1496 ordered all Jews to be expelled from Portugal, all Jewish children to become Christians, and all Hebrew books to be burned. Saba’s two sons were forcibly taken from him, and he fled from Oporto, taking with him only his own writings. Approaching Lisbon, Saba was told of a new decree of the king condemning any Jew possessing a Hebrew book or Tefillin to death. Saba hid his manuscripts and Tefillin under an olive-tree and attempted to recover his treasure when leaving the city sometime later. Saba was discovered by the king’s guards, thrown into prison, and after a six months’ confinement was exiled. Saba settled in Fez. Morocco, where he lived for ten years until his death.