The Oil for the Menorah

And you should command Bnai Yisrael and they should bring to you pure olive oil, hand crushed for illumination to keep a lamp constantly burning. (Shemot 27:20)

1. Only the purest olive oil can be used in the Menorah
In Parshat Tetzaveh the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle – the Mishcan continue. This parasha primarily deals with the garments of the Kohanim – the priests – and Kohen Gadol – the High Priest. However, the opening passage of the parasha deals with the oil used in the Menorah – the candelabra of the Mishcan.

Only the purest oil is used in the Menorah. The Mishne in Tractate Menachot describes the production of this oil. The olives are hand crushed. The crushed olives are placed in the basket. The oil that drains from these olives is extremely pure. This is the only oil used in the Menorah.[1]

2. Filtered oil is not acceptable
There is another means of producing pure oil. This is through filtering. This method is not acceptable. Even if the filtered oil is perfectly pure, it may not be used for the Menorah. Of course, this raises a question. The requirement to use in the Menorah only oil from hand-crushed olives is intended to assure the purity of the oil.[2] A similar grade of purity could be assured through filtering. However, filtering is unacceptable! Why can filtering not be used?

In order to answer this question, we must further analyze the Torah’s requirement for the oil of the Menorah. As our passage indicates, the oil must be pure. What is the definition of pure? Apparently, pure means that the oil should not contain solids. However, the oil must also be complete or whole. None of its components can be missing.

We can now understand the reason filtered oil cannot be used. There is a significant difference between pure oil derived from hand crushed olives and filtered oil. Oil derived from hand-crushed olives is innately pure. Without removing any component from the oil it is pure. Oil that is purified by filtering is not pure innately. Instead, the filtering removes the solids, leaving a purer oil. This answers our question. The oil used for the Menorah must be pure. It must also contain all of its components. These two requirements can only be met through hand-crushing the olives. Hand-crushing the olives produces pure oil without the removing any components. These requirements cannot be met through filtering.

3. The oil used for the Minchah offering
A Minchah – a grain offering – is also accompanied by oil. What grade of oil is required for a Minchah? The Torah, in describing this oil, mentions the same grade as required for the Menorah.[3] However, our Sages explain that the Minchah does not require this highest grade of oil. Even inferior grades are suitable. The passage merely indicates that the highest grade is not exclusively reserved for the Menorah. It can also be offered with the Minchah.[4] Maimonides adds that, although various grades of oil can be brought with the Minchah, one should bring the highest grade available. He explains that in performing any mitzvah one should always use the best materials.[5]

4. Fuels acceptable for Shabbat lights
Why is the highest grade of oil required for the Menorah but not absolutely required for the Minchah? The Midrash Tanchuma seems to answer this question. In order to understand the comments of the Midrash, an introduction is required. The Talmud discusses the types of fuels that may be used on Shabbat. There are two general considerations that determine the suitability of any fuel for the Shabbat lights. First, it must burn evenly. If the oil does not burn evenly, one might adjust the wick in order to improve the light. This adjustment is prohibited on Shabbat. Second, the fuel cannot burn with an unpleasant odor. The Shabbat lights are intended to provide useful light. If they produce an unpleasant odor, the members of the household will distance themselves from the Shabbat lights. These lights will not serve their intended purpose. The Mishne in Tractate Shabbat discusses various fuels that cannot be used for the Shabbat lights because of these two considerations. However, Rebbe Tarfon posits that it is not adequate for a fuel to burn well and not be unpleasant. He maintains that only olive oil may be used.[6] Tiferet Yisrael explains that the reason for Rebbe Tarfon’s position is that olive oil burns best.[7]

Rebbe Tarfon’s position is discussed at length in Midrash Tanchuma. There, the Sages argue with Rebbe Tarfon. They explain that olive oil is not readily available in all communities. Rebbe Tarfon’s insistence on olive oil will pose a hardship in such communities! Rebbe Tarfon responds that the Torah insists on olive oil for the Menorah. This demonstrates the superiority of its flame. Rebbe Tarfon also seems to indicate that this is the reason for requiring the highest grade of oil. Extremely pure oil produces a better flame.[8]

We can now answer our question. The highest grade of oil is superior in two ways. First, it is the choicest oil. As Maimonides explains, we should use the most choice materials in performing any mitzvah. However, this requirement is not absolute. If it is not satisfied the mitzvah is nonetheless fulfilled. This means that both for the Minchah and the Menorah the purest oil is preferred. However, this consideration alone does not disqualify oil of a lower grade. Indeed, a lower grade may be brought with a Minchah offering.

The highest grade oil is superior in a second way. As Rebbe Tarfon explains, it produces a better flame than any other grade. This aspect of superiority is irrelevant to the Minchah offering. That oil is not intended to fuel a light. However, it is relevant to the Menorah. The Menorah requires the best flame. This requirement is absolute and can only be achieved with the purest oil.

In short, the Menorah is designed to produce light. The highest grade olive oil produces the best light. Therefore, it is required for the Menorah. This consideration is irrelevant to the Minchah offering. Therefore, although choice materials are always best in performing a mitzvah, lower grades of oil are not disqualified.

The Design Specification for the Garments of the Kohen Gadol

And they shall be on Aharon and his sons when they enter the Ohel Moed or when they approach the altar to serve in sanctity. And they shall not be guilty of sin and die. It is an eternal law for him and his descendants after him. (Shemot 28:43)

1. The design specification for the garments of the Kohen Gadol and for the vessels of the Mishcan
Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l explained that there is a crucial difference between the utensils of the Mishcan and the garments of the Kohen Gadol. The design of the garments was strictly governed by the law. If any garment was lost or damaged, it was replaced by an exact duplicate. The description of the garments was binding for all generations.

In contrast, the design of the utensils was not permanently binding in all of its details. The design described in the Chumash was intended for the Mishcan. These utensils were also essential components of the Bait HaMikdash. However, the utensils in the Holy Temple were not required to meet the description of the Chumash in every detail. Deviation was permitted.

2. The relationship of the vessels and garments to the Mishcan
Why is the law of the garments different from the law of the utensils? The Mizbeyach Menorah, Shulchan and other utensils were part of the institution of Mikdash – sanctuary. However, the specific design described in the Torah was adapted to the Mishcan. The Mishcan was the version of Mikdash designed to accompany Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. The vessels as described in the Torah were as essential to the Mishcan as the tent itself. However, the Mishcan was only one model of the institution of sanctuary. These utensils were designed specifically for this model. Other models could have utensils designed in a different manner. Shlomo’s Bait HaMikdash represented a different interpretation of the institution of sanctuary. It would include all of these vessels. However, their design would be adapted to the Bait HaMikdash.

However, the garments were not a part of this institution of sanctuary. They were an expression of the sanctity of the Kohen Gadol. This sanctity did not change with the various forms of sanctuary. Therefore, the garments were not altered. The Kohen Gadol of the Mishcan had the same sanctify as the individual serving in Shlomo’s Temple. The garments of both High Priests were therefore identical.

[1] Mesechet Menachot 8:4-5.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 27:20.

[3] Sefer Shemot 29:40.

[4] Sifra Parshat Emor, chapter 13.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Esurai Mizbayach 7:11.

[6] Mesechet Shabbat 2:1-2.

[7] Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, Tiferet Yisrael Commentary on Mesechet Shabbat 2:2, note 25.

[8] Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat BeHaatotecha, chapter 1.