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What do Noah’s ark, the Temple lamp and anointing oil have in common?

Sep 3, 2021

וַאֲשֶׁ֣ר יַשְׁמִ֗יעוּ וְיַעֲבִ֨ירוּ ק֥וֹל בְּכׇל־עָרֵיהֶם֮ וּבִירוּשָׁלַ֣͏ִם לֵאמֹר֒ צְא֣וּ הָהָ֗ר וְהָבִ֙יאוּ֙ עֲלֵי־זַ֙יִת֙ וַעֲלֵי־עֵ֣ץ שֶׁ֔מֶן וַעֲלֵ֤י הֲדַס֙ וַעֲלֵ֣י תְמָרִ֔ים וַעֲלֵ֖י עֵ֣ץ עָבֹ֑ת לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת סֻכֹּ֖ת כַּכָּתֽוּב׃

and that they must announce and proclaim throughout all their towns and Yerushalayim as follows, “Go out to the mountains and bring leafy branches of olive trees, pine trees, myrtles, palms and [other] leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”

va-a-SHER yash-MEE-u v'-ya-a-VEE-ru KOL b'-khol a-ray-HEM u-vee-ru-sha-LA-im lay-MOR tz'-U ha-HAR v'-ha-VEE-u a-lay ZA-yit va-a-lay AYTZ SHE-men va-a-LAY ha-DAS va-a-LAY t'-ma-REEM va-a-LAY AYTZ a-VOT la-a-SOT su-KOT ka-ka-TUV

Nehemiah 8:15

The first time the olive tree is mentioned in the Bible is when Noah checked to see if the flood waters had receded. After the rain stopped falling, Noah waited until after the tops of the mountains became visible, and then sent a dove from the ark to check if the waters had abated enough to leave the ark and begin life on earth again. On its second flight, the dove returned with an olive branch in its mouth and Noah knew that the water had receded sufficiently for life on earth to begin anew (Genesis 8:11, 21). Hence, the image of a dove grasping an olive branch has become a symbol of peace.

Olive oil is heralded in the Bible as one of the great agricultural products of the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 8:8), and there is a special commandment to use oil made of olives, with additional ingredients such as myrrh and cinnamon (Exodus 30:22-25), to anoint kings, priests and the holy vessels of the Tabernacle and Temple. Pure olive oil was also used for the lighting of the golden lamp in the Tabernacle.
One lesson we can take from the olive is that just like an olive yields oil only when pressed, so too, as human beings, when we are pressed between the millstones of life our best selves emerge. Similarly, the Jewish people are refined when faced with difficulty, as hardship allows one to become more sensitive to others and form a closer connection with God.

An additional message of the olive can be found in the book of Nehemiah. When the people in Nehemiah’s time, the beginning of the Second Temple period, constructed their sukkot, or booths used to observe the Feast of Booths, they specifically looked for olive branches even though any species of tree may be used. Why? As we mentioned previously, the olive plays a significant role in the story of Noah’s flood, the lamp in the Temple is kindled daily exclusively with olive oil, and the oil from an olive is also used ceremoniously to anoint a new king. What all these things have in common is the theme of renewal. After the flood, the world was given a new start. Each time the lamp in the Temple is lit it is kindled anew, without any reliance on previous lightings, and the coronation of a new monarch also begins a new era for the kingdom. This symbolism was certainly not lost on the people in Nehemiah’s time, who were renewing their traditions in the God-given land of their forefathers, and they therefore made sure to use olive branches.

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