The clash of civilisations reflected in an olive oil lamp

Olive oil was essential both to ancient Israel and Greece


Most of us use candles for lighting the chanukiah, but our sages lauded using olive oil. The deep reasons for this are revealing.

As you know, on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of our ancestors against foreign invaders. In 165 BCE, after three years of hostilities, the Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, finally drove out from Jerusalem the Greek-speaking occupying forces, led by the Selucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. 

But this was not just a military victory of Israel’s Jews over the Greco-Syrians, it was also a cultural victory of Judaism over Hellenisation — the assimilation of Jews into ancient Greek culture. 

Each year we light the eight-branched chanukiah to remind us of the miraculous story of the small jar of unsullied olive oil that our ancestors discovered and used to rededicate the menorah in the ransacked Temple. A miracle occurred,and the menorah’s lights continued to burn for eight days until more pure oil could be produced. 

In the Talmud Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that though any kind of oil can be used for the chanukiah lights, olive oil is preferred (Shabbat 23a). Another scholar, Rabbah bar Nachmani, suggested that sesame oil might be better as its light is longer lasting, but then he yields to Rabbi Yeshoshua because, he says, olive oil “produces a clearer light”. 

Now that’s a surprise. Surely longer-lasting sesame oil would better remind us of the long-lasting little jug of oil? A second surprise is that no one cares to mention that it had always been olive oil that was used to light the actual menorah: “Now you shall command the Children of Israel that they bring you pure olive oil, pressed for illumination, to light the menorah continually” (Exodus 27:20). Instead, what matters here seems to be the special light that is unique to olive oil. What’s going on? 

The continuation of the Talmud here is even more shocking. The discussion of Chanukah is interrupted so that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi can state that all oils are also fit for the production of the ink used to write our sacred scrolls, such as a Sefer Torah, but that, again, olive oil is preferred. 

As well as binding agents, this indelible black ink was produced by collecting the soot from the light of an olive oil lamp dissolved in yet more olive oil. So, although the ink for a modern Sefer Torah is now produced from alternative ingredients, the ideal Sefer Torah, as described by our talmudic sages, clearly involved the copious use of olive oil to write every single letter. Clearly, this oil had some central importance to Jewish religious culture. 

It turns out that olive oil was essential to Greek culture too. Athens, the ancient capital of Greece, took its name from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, because she introduced them to the olive tree. 

Probably the most common ancient Greek coin depicted Athena on one side, wearing an olive wreath on her helmet, and an olive branch and owl (for wisdom) on the other. Even today, the Greek one euro coin has Athena and the olive branch on one side. 

Olive oil is a staple of the Greek diet and they have been international suppliers of this precious liquid for over four millennia. Olive groves were considered sacred in ancient Greece and Aristotle wrote that the olive tree was state-protected. 

For over a thousand years the winners of the Olympic Games (which began in Olympia in 776 BCE) were crowned with a wreath made from an olive branch and their reward was a lifetime’s supply of olive oil. 

So it is no wonder that olive oil-based lights became the symbol of Chanukah. That pure light represents the clash of civilisations between Greece and Israel. Essentially, the light symbolises wisdom. Its clarity means you could read and study by it after dark and, just as gaining wisdom requires a huge investment of effort and time, so similarly, it takes six kilogrammes of olives to produce just one litre of olive oil. 

In fact, the sages were so enamoured with Greek that “a Sefer Torah may be written in no foreign language other than Greek” (Mishnah, Megillah 1:8). They sensed that the Greeks, like us, took life seriously and wanted to understand the nature of this world as well as humanity’s role in it. Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Chochmei Atunah (“sages of Athens”) are all given some recognition in rabbinic literature. 

But Greek thought had a dark side too because it over-emphasised physical beauty both in nature and in the human body. It understood the great virtues — glory, wisdom, love etc —as manifestations of multiple gods rather than being from one Creator. Many Jews were seduced by this and a large part of chanukah was the intra-communal conflict of Hellenised versus committed Jews. 

And so today, we can still appreciate the wonders of Western thinking which are based on ancient Greek wisdom. But, at the same time, Chanukah reminds us to be dedicated to our particular faith, a faith that gave us Godly wisdom to live by. The precious lights of your Chanukiah symbolise enlightenment, both worldly and divine. Guard them well.

Rabbi Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies

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