Saturday, January 27, 2018

Olives and Chanukah

Last Chanukah I happened to be visiting London, and I went on a tour of the British Museum with a Chanukah theme.

It was interesting to learn that olives, and olive oil, have a special significance for the Greeks just as they do for us. According to the founding myth of Athens, the goddess Athena won "ownership" of the city by providing it with an olive tree. The olive tree thus became a symbol of Athens, and appeared on its coins. Olive oil and the light it produced became further associated with the light of learning, as Athens was the center of Greek intellectual culture.

With this background, it is interesting to note how significant olives are to *our* side of the Chanukah story. The mitzvah of the holiday is to kindle lights (best fulfilled with olive oil), in memory of the olive oil lights in the Temple with were relit by the Maccabees. Furthermore, R' Yoel Bin Nun hypothesizes that Chanukah existed as a celebration of the olive harvest (which happens around this time of year) before the Maccabees.

So within the very symbol of the olive, there is a struggle between Greek and Jewish culture, paralleling the struggle between the two cultures in general. The Maccabees found impure oil in the Temple, but insisted on using pure oil instead. Similarly Greek culture was available and popular, but the Maccabees insisted on following Jewish culture instead.