Today, when we talk about olive oil, we are usually talking about salad dressings or the health benefits of monounsaturated fatty acids and antioxidants. This Shabbat, however, when we read about olive oil in the Torah, we are reading about the fuel that was used to kindle the lamps in the ancient, desert sanctuary. According to the Torah, this fuel was to be “pure, virgin” olive oil. Today, pure, virgin olive oil refers to oil that contains very little acid content and was not refined or produced with chemicals.
But things were different in ancient times.
In ancient Israel, olive oil was doubly graded. The first grade was based upon the tree position of the olive from which the oil was extracted. The higher the olive was on the tree, the riper it would be; the riper the olive, the better the oil. The second grade was based upon the purity of the oil. Oil purity was determined largely by the means used to extract the oil from the olive. The purest oil was the first drop squeezed from the olive. Lower categories of oil included oil extracted by pressing or crushing the olives.Based upon this, it would be safe to assume that the “pure, virgin” oil described in this week’s Torah portion – oil used to kindle the lamps in the ancient sanctuary – must have consisted of the first drops of oil squeezed from olives that were picked from tops of olive trees. But this might not have been the case.
According to the Talmud, the location of the olive on the tree was not important. While an olive at the top of a tree was likely to be riper than an olive at the bottom of a tree and, thus, more likely to yield better oil than the oil at the bottom of the tree, the Talmud teaches that what really determined the quality of an olive’s oil was the manner it which the oil was extracted. Thus, the first drop squeezed from an olive at the bottom of a tree could be used to kindle the lights in the ancient sanctuary. Oil that was extracted by crushing an olive that grew at the top of the tree could not be used to kindle the lights. The holiness of the oil had nothing to do with the “status” of the olive but, rather, the way the oil was harvested.
What can we learn from this today?
No matter what our position is in the various different communities, organizations and groups that we are a part of – we have the potential to do, say or create something truly remarkable. While we might be the lowest guy on the totem pole, our skills, creativity and effort can produce something that outshines the guys at the top. When God gives us lemons, we are taught to make lemonade. This week’s Torah portion teaches us a slightly different lesson: if God gives us low-hanging olives – squeeze out the highest quality olive oil.