Why Olive Oil?
- Retaining one's unique identity. This article from Aish entitled "Assimilation and the Chanukah Oil" was illuminating. The article points out that oil is "probably the most politically incorrect of all liquids" because it refuses to compromise its uniqueness. Part of the Chanukah story is for the Jews to retain their distinct identity in the midst of a world that encourages one to assimilate. Especially in today's society, my main issue with this article is that it presents a false dilemma between separation and assimilation, when in fact one can integrate. Yes, Jews can maintain their distinct identity with distinct practices, but Jews can also interact with greater society without losing that distinctiveness. It's not easy, but it can be done. Going back to the article, because it's not easy, for those of us who take the integration route need to be even more mindful of making sure we don't assimilate. After all, living in a world of gray (i.e., that of nuances and complexity) is more difficult to manage than that of black and white.
- Reliving the Days of the Temple: The Maharal takes the argument of "that was the oil of the original miracle" argument a step further. It is not simply about reliving the miracle, but of recreating the spiritual mood of the Temple because olive oil was used during the Temple days (e.g., Exodus 37:20). Under normative traditional Judaism, the Temple represents the epitome of spiritual connection with G-d. We should emulate that mood while lighting the menorah.
- Going for the best and purest: Going off the explanation of the Temple, the Talmud (Menachot 85b) teaches that it wasn't enough to procure just any oil: it had to be from Tekoa because it was the highest-quality, purest olive oil in existence. Much like they used the purest olive oil in the days of the Temple, we should also make sure we have the best and finest when we perform any mitzvah, which in this case, would be the usage of pure olive oil.
- Symbolism of Wisdom: According to the Talmud (Menachot 85b), the other reason why Tekoa was the best place to get olive oil was "because the people there use a lot of oil, they possess much wisdom." The Talmud (Bava Batra 25a) also associates wisdom with the menorah. We should use olive oil to exemplify the wisdom that Torah provides us. As King Solomon (Proverbs 20:27) said, "the spirit of man is the lamp of G-d." Much like oil permeates within the olive, G-d's Likeness (צלם אלוהים) permeates in each human being.
- Symbol of Steadfastness. Part of why olive oil has particular symbolism is because it represents the steadfastness within the holiday. When discussing the use of olive oil for the Temple, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 31:10) uses a parable to parallel a legion faithful to its king to the olive branch that the dove in the Noah story brought to Noah. Rabbi David ben Yehudah Luria, also known as the Radal, took this to meant that because the olive branch withstood the corruption that took place during the Flood, the olive was chosen as the symbol of rebirth and renewal after the Flood narrative. The olive tree itself is also one that has strong roots, holds on to light and non-rich soil, and can withstand droughts, disease, and fire. Brining the symbolism of the olive back to the Chanukah story, maintaining that steadfastness under external pressures is what makes olive oil so special. We are meant to endure and maintain our Jewishness.
I would like to touch upon another bit of legal history that turns all this symbolism about olive oil on its head. Even with all the lauding about olive oil, it is perfectly permissible acceptable to use wax candles. The reason for this? In pre-modern times, it was difficult for Ashkenazi Jews, i.e., Jews primarily of Central and Eastern European descent, to acquire olive oil. Because of the economic burden it would have caused, R. Moshe Isserles (the Rema) ruled that although olive oil was preferable, it was nevertheless acceptable to use wax candles.
The argument of using different oils was hardly a new one, even for the Rema. We already see this play out in the Talmud (Mishnah Shabbat 2:2) where it was acceptable for Jews to light for Shabbat with other oils, e.g., sesame oil, nut oil. While discussing lighting Chanukah candles, the Talmud does not even bring up that olive oil was used during the miracle. The discussion in the Talmud is about which oil works best. In the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), Rabbah bar Nachmani suggested using sesame oil because it lasted longer, but he acquiesced to R. Yehoshua ben Levi's opinion about olive oil because olive oil shined brighter. The Meiri (Shabbat 21) confirms this viewpoint of preferring olive oil for practical reasons. We also have to remember something else, which is that the mitzvah is first and foremost about kindling, and not about whether we use olive oil.
I find this tension to be a metaphor about how we deal with struggle and tension within the Jewish tradition. On the one hand, we are supposed to aim for our best and purest, which is what the olive oil is supposed to represent. On the other hand, I find that allowing for wax candles represents an acknowledgment of our humanity in the sense that we have limitations, whether they be economic or otherwise. Not everyone has the best or the purest, but we are still able to fulfill the mitzvah just as adequately with wax candles, or in a more spiritual metaphor, we can still bring just as much light with what we are able to provide. In Pirkei Avot 5:27, Ben Hei Hei said "according to the effort is the reward." This is not to say that intent is everything (because it's not) or to say that "anything goes in Judaism" (e.g., most believe that an electronic menorah does not fulfill the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah candles, although some rule otherwise), but that within the confines of Jewish law and Jewish values, there is more than one way to be Jewish, which is why there are multiple branches on the menorah.
We might not all be at the point where we can literally afford olive oil or metaphorically be on a spiritual level that olive oil is supposed to represent. However, G-d has given us other ways to still fulfill the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights. What's even better is that Chanukah brings the message that we can spiritually grow, even with whatever shortcomings we might have. There is that classical debate in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) between R. Shammai and R. Hillel about how to light the candles. R. Hillel ultimately won, and standard practice is to light one candle the first night, two the second night, etc. This is to teach us the importance of spiritual importance of gradualism. We start off with just one light (plus the shamash candle), and by the end, we reach maximum capacity. This is how we should view our spiritual ascent: with gradualism. Metaphorically speaking, most of us cannot make the automatic leap to olive oil. We have to ease ourselves into a level to reach our maximum potential. That is what I think the wax candles represent: the dichotomy for reaching higher while still being able to accomplish a great deal (in this case, the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah candles) without reaching the high point. The debate between olive oil and wax candles should remind us that our ultimate goal is to serve G-d to the best of our ability and to remember what is ultimately important: to bring spiritual light into this world.
Whether you use olive oil or wax candles, I hope you have a meaningful Chanukah that leads to spiritual growth in your life.