According to our Hanukkah story, the Menorah in the Temple needed to be lit at all times. The Maccabees found it extinguished when they recaptured the Temple precinct, precipitating a crisis. Exodus 27:20 states that only special undiluted olive oil should be used for the Menorah. The reserve oil jars in the jar storage room had been smashed save for one.
Olive oil gives the nicest and most stable flame of any oil—it does not flicker. Like today, the manner, season, and repetition of pressing the olives yields different purity levels of oil. Temple grade olive oil was made at Tekoa (Bavli Menachot 85:b). Nothing else could be added to it and it was not permitted to be blended with any other oil.
In order to procure Tekoa oil, runners needed to travel four days from Jerusalem and four days on the return journey. That left an eight day gap during which the Menorah would be unlit; thus creating the situation necessary for our eight day miracle. In a tender scene, often retold in pastel illustrated children’s books, the Maccabee Priests have reclaimed the Temple and are saddened by the destruction they find therein. Inside a forgotten corner of a store room, they happen upon a single jar of oil. How their eyes brightened when they realized it was sealed with the seal of the High Priest (and was fit to use)! How they became downcast again when the surprise wore off and they realized it was only enough oil for one night. What would they do?
We are meant to marvel that despite the gutting of the Temple, a single jar of olive oil remained unspoilt. We empathize with the Maccabees at finding the altar defiled and a statue of Olympian Zeus on the Temple grounds. They chose to light with insufficient quantity but high quality smidgen of olive oil on hand.
I would propose we extend the principals from our Hanukkah story and Jewish Law to oblige us to investigate polluting chemicals in our food. We can read ingredient lists for additives such as artificial sweeteners, corn syrup, or carcinogenic coloring agents. We monitor food for pork derivatives, but not for caramel coloring. For their spiritual health, the Temple Priests lit with pure, undiluted oil. Perhaps for our physical health we can ensure the purity of what we put into our bodies. We may need to shift towards cooking from raw ingredients and investigating the growing conditions of our food.
Judah would not have allowed the use of olive oil containing trace amounts of harmful pesticides to illuminate the Temple. He would not have permitted the growing or consumption of produce treated with insecticides linked to birth defects. If these chemicals had existed during his lifetime, I believe they would have judged such produce impure, unkosher, and unfit for consumption.
As we retell the story each year, we take heart at the Maccabees’ decision to light with a tiny bit of choice olive oil. They could have left the lamps unlit, or used another type of oil. There were other oils around. Mishnah Shabbat 2:1 mentions a few kinds of oil that were regularly used for light: tar, fish, nut, radish, gourd, and sesame. The Mishnah does concede that these are not ideal oils—fish oil has quite an aroma. How would our story have been different if they had given up and lit with fish oil? Today’s latkes would be served with tartar sauce.
However, what if they had cut the oil with a trace amount of tar? In a season of so much highly processed food, let us aspire towards simple, pure, and healthy ingredients in what we eat.
Starting with this column, written by Rabbi Jason Rosner of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park, each month JLife SGPV will feature one of our community’s Jewish professionals who will be sharing their thoughts on a wide range of topics.
rabbi jason rosner is THE Rabbi and Executive Director, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park contributing writer to jlife magazine.