The Torah portion of Tetzave opens with the instruction to take olive oil for the menorah’s light. Why olive oil? What is so special about the olive tree and its product? While it’s possible that this was the most commonly used available oil then and there, throughout the generations our sages found additional meanings.
The olive received its fame already early on when the dove brought its branch back to the ark for Noah, as a message of new life after the flood (Genesis 8:11). The olive has been one of the seven species of the Land, nick naming it “—Land of olive’s oil. When King Solomon built the Temple, he paid for its wood in pure olive oil:
וּשְׁלֹמֹה֩ נָתַ֨ן לְחִירָ֜ם עֶשְׂרִים֩ אֶ֨לֶף כֹּ֤ר חִטִּים֙ מַכֹּ֣לֶת לְבֵית֔וֹ וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים כֹּ֖ר שֶׁ֣מֶן כָּתִ֑ית כֹּֽה־יִתֵּ֧ן שְׁלֹמֹ֛ה לְחִירָ֖ם שָׁנָ֥ה בְשָׁנָֽה׃ (פ)
and Solomon delivered to Hiram 20,000 kors of wheat as provisions for his household and 20 kors of beaten oil. Such was Solomon’s annual payment to Hiram.
We know of the use of olive oil for the Hanukkah menorah. Some use it to decorate the groom’s head on his wedding day. Seeing an olive in a dream indicates good business. The modern State of Israel opted for olive branches around the menorah as a symbol of peace. And much more.
The Talmud (Horayot 13:b) teaches that olives themselves detract from learning while olive oil – helps:
הרגיל בשמן זית מסייע ליה לרבי יוחנן דאמר רבי יוחנן כשם שהזית משכח לימוד של שבעים שנה כך שמן זית משיב לימוד של שבעים שנה:
The Gemara elaborates on the baraita: One who is accustomed to eating olive oil restores forgotten Torah study. The Gemara notes: This supports the opinion of Rabbi Yoḥanan, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Just as eating an olive causes one to forget seventy years’ worth of Torah study, olive oil restores seventy years’ worth of Torah study.
This is complemented by another statement (Menachot 53:b):
…יצתה בת קול ואמרה לו (ירמיהו יא, טז) “זית רענן יפה פרי תואר קרא ה’ שמך” מה זית זו אחריתו בסופו אף ישראל אחריתן בסופן
…A Divine Voice emerged and said to him the continuation of the verse: “The Lord called your name a leafy olive tree, fair with goodly fruit.” Just as with regard to this olive tree, its final purpose is fulfilled at its end, when its fruit is picked, so too, with regard to the Jewish people, their final purpose will be fulfilled at their end, i.e., they will ultimately repent and return to Me.
The Netivot Shalom (1911-2000) teaches that “an olive is the only fruit that asides from its mere existence as such, hides within it a special power. After it is beaten down and smashed, it reveals a new power stored within it, the power to light a light, grow and sustain a flame. Just like”, continues the rabbi, “our souls, sometimes might need to get “wacked” through life’s “school of hard knocks”, yet often, it’s the trials and tribulations that bring out the best in us too, helping us light a bigger light”.
The olive therefore stands for our continuance growth. Olive trees never lose their leaves. When an olive tree is cut, there might be just a sad stump, but with care, it can come back to life. And while the wood can be used for heat and the fruit for food, the oil is used for light, which symbolizes our soul as individuals and as a nation.