Oil plays a dominant role in the observance of Chanukah. Many of us light our chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs) with olive oil instead of candles. And whether one is in Israel, where sufganiyot (deep-fried jelly donuts) are the popular culinary treat, or in America, where latkes (fried potato pancakes) are the seasonal highlight, oil plays an important role in our physical enjoyment of the holiday.
The ancients understood the importance of olive oil—one of the Shivat Haminim, the seven agricultural products for which the Land of Israel is praised. Moshe, in describing the goodness of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, includes olive oil (not olives!) in the list of the Shivat Haminim: “God is bringing you to a good land … A land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey” (Deuteronomy 8: 7-8). Olive oil was a most precious commodity in ancient Israel. In ancient times, it was used for many purposes including for cooking and lighting, to prepare cosmetics and medicine and to anoint kings and priests.
Indeed, we recall the importance of olive oil daily in the Shema, which states, “I will give you the rain in its due season and … you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil” (Deuteronomy 11:14). Olive oil was also central to the Beit Hamikdash; King Solomon traded oil to obtain the precious cedars of Lebanon, which were used to construct the Beit Hamikdash (1 Kings 5:24-32). In addition, olive oil was mixed with flour for certain offerings, and it was used to light the menorah in the Beit Hamikdash.
Today, as in ancient times, olives are either harvested by hand or beaten down from the trees. We actually gain insight into how this precious substance was produced in ancient times
from a mishnah in Bava Batra. The fourth chapter, mishnah five, (“Hamocher et bet habad, the one who sells an olive press”) delineates which parts of the olive press go to the seller and which parts the buyer retains for himself. The mishnah provides a list of the key elements of the ancient olive press as well as a glimpse into how olive oil was produced.
In the autumn, when the olives began to ripen on the trees, they were harvested and brought to the olive press. They were collected into a round stone basin (a “yam” in the language of the Mishnah) of about five to six feet in diameter. The olives were then crushed to a pulp by the rotation of a large round stone (“memel”) around the basin. This pulp was placed into woven baskets from which the first drops would seep out; the drops, according to some, constituted the pure virgin olive oil (“shemen zayit zach”) that was fit to be used for the Temple. The baskets were stacked over a collection basin, usually hewn into the rock, and the oil and water in the pulp were squeezed out by tremendous pressure exerted by either a corkscrew-type mechanism or a long beam with stone weights. These weights, often between two and three tons each, were suspended at one end, which exerted tremendous pressure at the other end. This process is known as pressing olives. Because oil and water don’t mix, the oil in the collection basin would float to the top. Various methods were used for siphoning off the precious oil and leaving aside the water.
Israel is a key player in the world’s olive oil production, and tourists can visit some of the country’s olive groves and see where the process of making olive oil begins. Olive trees can be found all over the land of Israel, and the fruit generally begins to ripen in October, just in time for Chanukah. One of the most popular sites for viewing olive trees is Route 85, between the Amiad Junction and the city of Karmiel in the Galil. Driving for quite a few miles, you’ll note that stretches of land on both sides of the road form one continuous olive grove. Some of the trees there are clearly quite old, most likely more than 1,000 years old.
One can see ancient olive oil presses in numerous places in Israel, from Bet Guvrin National Park, located south of Bet Shemesh, to the reconstructed ancient Talmudic village in Katzrin in the Golan Heights. But at this time of year, perhaps the most appropriate places are the Neot Kedumim Nature Reserve and Moshav Mevo Modi’in. Both are located in the heart of the Modi’in region, near the modern Israeli city of Modi’in, where the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Assyrians began in the second century BCE. Some places, such as Neot Kedumim and Ein Yael in Jerusalem near the Malcha Mall, even offer younger guests the opportunity to try olive oil pressing, an enjoyable and meaningful way to relate to the gift of oil that God gave to the Land of Israel.
Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011-972-2-645-1865 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.