OIL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
By Gil Marks
The theme of blessing, and who receives which blessing, flows through the book of Genesis. The parsha of Vayechi centers on Jacob’s final blessings, to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh, and to his twelve sons. Both of the relatively lengthy blessings of the two largest and most important tribes, Judah (49:11-12) and Joseph (49:22), contained mentions of the vine, a synonym for abundance and a ubiquitous component of blessing. The blessing of the tribe of Asher (49:20), short and succinct, involved another food and matter, “From Asher, lachmo ("his bread" or "his food") shall be rich, and he will provide royal mahahdahnay (delights/delicacies).”
Pointedly, Numbers Rabbah described the flavor of the manna as "they found all mahahdahnay in the taste of the manna." The term mahahdahnay literally means "from Eden." Thus the heaven-sent bread that the generation of the wilderness consumed for forty years rendered the taste of paradise. Proverbs (29:17) applied the concept in an emotional sense, "Correct your son and he will give you comfort; Yea, he will give mahahdanim (delights) to your soul." Jacob, tellingly, employed that same term in his blessing of Asher. Recalling last week's article, the Aggadah related that before Adam transgressed, the earth produced a refined bread, one that did not require the accompaniment of relish in order to be palatable, a state that will return for everyone with the messiah. Yet some people are still able to get a taste of paradise in this world, sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual.
Thus the plain meaning of Jacob's blessing is that the bread of Asher will be refined, worthy of a royal table, and his food reminiscent of that of paradise. In this instance, however, Rashi translated lechem in its generic sense as "mahaahchol" (food) -- similar to Genesis 31:54, Leviticus 3:11, 21:17, 21:21 -- rather than as specifically bread. Rashi, in explaining the source of the richness of Asher's food and why it was fit for kings, continued, “The food that comes from the portion of Asher will be rich for there will be many olives in his portion for it draws forth oil like a spring. Similarly, did Moses bless him ‘and dip his feet in oil' (Deuteronomy 33:24).”
Oil is mentioned more than 200 times in the Torah and in almost every instance the reference was to that from olives. There are about 40 species in the Oleaceae family of evergreen trees, but only one (Olea europaea) that bears a fruit important to humans, from which all olive varieties come. Wild olives still grow profusely throughout northern Israel and southern Syria, the area considered by many as the probable site of its origins. The olive tree was already cultivated in prehistoric times and eventually spread, primarily by the Phoenicians, throughout the Mediterranean area. Some scholars believe that the hard, oddly-shaped root of the olive tree was the original plow. Fresh olives are inedible without soaking in lye, wood ash, or brine, so it is probable that someone stumbled upon some olives that had fallen into the sea and subsequently figured out how to process them as a food. Even before that, however, people deduced how to squeeze oil from them.
Olives contain 8 to 20 percent oil by weight, which is easily pressed out. Olive oil, unlike most other vegetable and seed oils, requires no further processing or refining. Therefore, olive oil was one of the world's first oils, made in the Levant for more than 5,000 years. Indeed, the English word oil is derived from the Latin word for this fruit, olea. Olive oil is generally classified by three grades, based upon the amount of acidity: Extra virgin, virgin, and pure. Extra virgin, called "first oil" in biblical times, is cold-pressed from the first pressing. This was the only oil used in the Temple meal offerings and menorah. Virgin oil generally comes from the second or third pressing. Pure oil, a misnomer, is made by refining the remaining olive pulp either by heat or chemically. The quality of any olive oil, similar to wine, varies according to growing conditions, quality of the olives, producer standards, and from year to year. Oils range from bitter to very pungent and fruity in flavor, yellow to vivid green in color, light to very thick in texture, and dull to intense in aroma. Therefore, the only way to determine the oil's characteristics is to taste it. In Israel, although olive trees grew throughout, the best oil came from the territory of Asher.
Although it takes at least five years before this evergreen bears fruit, the tree lives an incredible length of time, the trunk twisting and the interior becoming hollow as it ages. The Garden of Gethsemane (Hebrew for "olive press"), lying at the base of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, contains olive trees dating back to before the destruction of the Second Temple. Such geographic references reflect the import of olives in ancient Israel. Olives, among the seven species with which the Land of Israel was blessed (Deuteronomy 8:8), have from the onset played a considerable role in Jewish life and lore. Zayin, the Hebrew word for olive, serves as the seventh letter of the alphabet and the olive remains one of the standard halachic units of measurements. Miracles are frequently associated with olive oil, including Elisha and the widow (2 Kings 4:1-7), the menorah in the Temple (Shabbat 22b), and, of course, Chanukah. The cherubim of the Temple (I Kings 6:23) and its doors were made from olive wood (I Kings 6:31). Since after being cut down the olive tree sprouts suckers from its roots that grow into a new tree, it serves as a symbol of renewal and fertility (Psalm 128:3). Thus some Middle Eastern Jews serve the fruit, with bread and hard-boiled eggs, at the meal before a fast. In the story of Noah, the olive branch served as the symbol of peace and renewal, a role it still retains. In Zechariah (4:2-3), two olive trees symbolically serve as witnesses, "He said to me: What do you see? And I answered: I have seen a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl above it, and on it are seven lamps with seven pipes. And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl and the other upon the left side." Thus today, the official emblem of the State of Israel features two olive branches flanking a menorah.
Olive oil in biblical times was not only integral in the preparation of many foods and paired with bread in the manner that Westerners use butter, it was used for fuel, light, skin lotion, and medicine (Isaiah 1:6). (Olives contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.) Ashkenazim, primarily living in northern parts of Europe, found themselves in regions lacking olive trees, and long ago lost this blessing from their diet and culture. On the other hand, olive trees thrived on the Iberian Peninsula, allowing Sephardim to preserve their ancient ties with olive oil and use it as their primary cooking fat, a major component of what became their distinctive and sophisticated cuisine. Indeed, following the Reconquista of Spain, fifteenth-century Christian writers disparagingly noted the distinctive marks of Jewish cooking -- long-simmering stews, the use of olive oil for frying, and the prevalence of onions and garlic in meat dishes. Even after the Expulsion of 1492, Sephardim generally found themselves near the Mediterranean area and an abundance of olives and, therefore, continued to enjoy and understand olive oil.
In the Temple, olive oil was generally poured over the meal offerings, the result called "a sweet savour unto the Lord." Pointedly, there were two meal offerings in the Temple not to have olive oil poured on them -- the one relating to a husband's jealousy (Numbers 5:15) and the trespass offering (Leviticus 5:11). Unlike the sweet-savour of the various burnt offerings, the reason for these two oilless offerings was the lack of peace and love and, therefore, the presence of olive oil, representing blessing and happiness, would be inappropriate.
Moses in his final blessings to the tribe (Deuteronomy 33:24) declared, "Most blessed of sons be Asher, let him be the favorite of his brothers, and let him dip his foot in oil." Why is Asher most blessed? Having food fit for Eden certainly can be construed as a blessing. In addition, the tribe provided the olive oil for the meal offerings in the Temple as well as the illumination of the menorah. Another source of the tribe's blessed status was its prolificacy -- many children being considered the greatest blessing. According to tradition, the tribe of Asher produced beautiful daughters, many of whom married high priests, thus further interconnecting its association with the Temple.
Interestingly, claims were made in the Talmud and Midrash for most of the Seven Species -- fig, wheat, date, grape, and pomegranate -- being "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17)," with one noticeable exception -- the olive. Perhaps this absence indicated the olive's identity as "the tree of life (3:22)," an assertion made in apocryphal sources. Even if the olive cannot affirm a connection to Eden, it certainly can to the messianic age. Olive oil was used to anoint Aaron and his sons as priests (Exodus 29:7) as well as all the kings of Israel (I Samuel 10:1, 16:1, 6-7; II Samuel 2:4, 5:3; I Kings 1:39, 19:16; II Kings 9:1 and 3, 11:2). Hence the origin of the word messiah, "the anointed one". According to a Jewish legend, the branch that the dove brought back to Noah came from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the location on which the Messiah is destined to make his appearance.
The olive is also associated with blessing. In Deuteronomy (7:13, 11:14, 12:17, 14:23, 18:4) olive oil is consistently adjoined with grain and wine as the threesome of blessing, including "And He will love you, and bless you, and multiply you; and He will bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your soil, your grain and your wine and your olive oil (Deuteronomy 7:13)." Judah, in the south, was a land profuse with vines and sheep, providing wine and milk (49:12), and Ephraim and Mannaseh, lying in the heart of the country, produced much of the grain. The portion of Asher, whose named means "happy" or "pleasure" in Hebrew, which sloped on the northern border to the Phoenician coastline near Tyre, provided much of the third component of the nation's physical blessing, serving as the olive belt of Israel. Not surprisingly, the banner of the tribe of Asher sported an olive tree. In the olive-producing regions of the Mediterranean, it has long been common to have on the table, both at home and in restaurants, a plate of high-quality olive oil in which to dip pieces of bread, a practice once too expensive in other areas. Asher's profusion of olive oil provided the means of transforming even ordinary bread into a taste of paradise, not to mention the health benefits.
1 pound; about 60 olives
Olives are a ubiquitous sight at
Middle Eastern tables, served as a side dish at breakfast, lunch, and dinner
as well as cooked in dishes. Cured
olives are frequently marinated in various aromatics to create new layers of
flavor. These spicy olives are
a popular part of many Middle Eastern mezes. Residents of the Mediterranean believe that the brine hides
the true flavor of olives. Therefore,
they are generally rinsed (and sometimes soaked), then dressed to enhance
their appeal. The older the
olives, the more porous they become and the more flavors they absorb.
1 pound (about 3 cups) pitted small to medium green or oil-cured black olives (such as Nicoise)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
Rinse the olives, then soak in cold water for at least 4 hours. Drain.
Combine the olives with the
remaining ingredients. Cover
and refrigerate for at least 1 day and up to 1 week.
Serve at room temperature.
Add ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, ½
teaspoon fennel seeds, ½ teaspoon dried oregano, and ½ teaspoon dried
About 3 cups
1. Place the olives in a medium saucepan, add water to cover, bring to a boil, then drain.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the garlic, then the tomato paste and sauté until the paste begins to darken, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, water, lemon slices, cayenne, cumin, salt, and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the olives. Discard the lemon slices and let cool. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Serve at room temperature.
1½ cups; about 24 olives
Combine all the ingredients in a
1-pint jar. Cover and let stand
in the refrigerator for at least 3 days and up to 3 months.
Serve at room temperature.
About 1 cup
Olive pastes were common in the
ancient Middle East. The Romans
made such as paste, seasoned with vinegar and herbs (including cilantro,
fennel, and mint) called epityrum.
1¾ cups (9 ounces) brine-cured black olives, drained and pitted
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
In a food processor, purée all
the ingredients until smooth. Cover
and let stand for at least 1 hour.
and Anchovy Paste: Add 4 anchovy fillets.
About 1½ cups/4 to 5 servings as a dip
The Romans, like many Ancient Mediterranean cultures, made a paste from olives, seasoned with vinegar and herbs (including cilantro, fennel, and mint) called epityrum. In this tradition is tapenade, a Provencal paste made from olives, capers, and anchovies. The name comes from the Provencal word for capers, tapeno, to differentiate it from other olive pastes. Spread tapenade on croûtes/crostini (toast), spread over cheese tarts, use to stuff hard-cooked eggs or cherry tomatoes, serve as a dip for crudités, bread, and crackers, or serve with broiled\grilled fish.
In a food processor or with a
mortar and pestle, pulse the olives, anchovies, capers, garlic, basil,
parsley, pepper, and, if desired, lemon juice until minced.
Drizzle in the olive oil and mix well.
Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Serve at room temperature.
Tapenade: Substitute 1½ ounces tuna packed in olive oil for the anchovies. If desired, add 1 tablespoon brandy.
6 to 8 servings
This is one of the most popular Turkish zeytinyagli ("olive oil food"), making use of the spring crop or leeks. A little lemon juice is commonly added to impart a tart flavor. Zeytinyagli are usually served at room temperature or chilled before the meal, accompanied with plenty of fresh bread to mop up the sauce, but also warm as a side dish.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan
over medium heat. Add the leeks
and sauté in until softened, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, stock, salt, pepper, and sugar.
Cover and simmer until the leeks are tender, about 30 minutes.
Add the olives and lemon juice and simmer another 10 minutes.
Serve at room temperature as an appetizer or warm as a side dish.
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.