In the Mishna on daf 31 we learn about situations where one planned to sanctify one item and accidentally ended up sanctifying another. Among the items discussed are oil and wine:
“A barrel of wine that will come up first in my hand is consecrated, and a barrel of oil came up in his hand instead. . .” (Nazir 31a)
The Gemara will continue and debate if a person intends to give generously, and therefore if something came up that was worth more than what he had consecrated, it is sacred, or if he is stingy and would prefer to give the cheaper item. In that context the question is, which is more valuable, oil or wine? It seems from the other items in the Mishnah that oil is more expensive than wine (like gold versus silver) but later in the Gemara it seems the opposite. The Gemara resolves the contradiction by explaining that wine is more valuable in the Galilee, because in that region olive trees grow everywhere and olive oil is a standard, non-luxury item. Wine on the other hand is more a product of the south, the Judean Hills, and there it is olive oil that is more rare. What do we know about olive trees, oil and the Galilee?
One of the most basic staples of Mediterranean countries for millennia has been olive oil. Israel has been producing olive oil since Biblical days and the many oil presses you see at archaeological sites around the country are a good proof of that. Olives are of course one of the seven species that the land of Israel is blessed with and olive oil plays a large part in Jewish ritual, as well as being used for food, soap, cosmetics and light. The vessels of the Temple were anointed with olive oil, as was the king and the high priest. In fact, the word for anoint is the same word we use for the king who will come at the end of days: the Messiah משיח. The menorah in the Temple was lit with the best, first press olive oil and the rabbis in the Mishnah talk about how olive oil is the first choice to use for lighting your Shabbat candles.
An ancient oil press at Tel Maresha
I, Chai, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Was there more olive oil in the Galilee? The blessing of one of the Galilee-dwelling tribes, Asher, is directly connected to oil:
“Asher’s bread shall be rich,
And he shall yield royal dainties.” (Bereshit 49:20)
Rashi takes the word translated here as rich שמנה and explains that it is connected to שמן: oil: Asher’s portion will have many olives in it and they will be filled with oil. Moses’ blessing echoes this idea:
“Most blessed of sons be Asher;
May he be the favorite of his brothers,
May he dip his foot in oil.” (Devarim 33:24)
The Gemara in Menachot (85b) relates a story of a messenger who needed a large quantity of olive oil. He could not find what he wanted in the great markets of Jerusalem and Tyre, only in a humble village in Gush Halav, in the Upper Galilee in the portion of Asher.
Even today, as you drive around the Galilee, beautiful olive trees are everywhere and many communities, particularly Arab ones, have local presses to make their own oil. The masik, the olive harvest, is an important and festive occasion.
Harvesting olives in the Galilee
Abraham OFM, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Like many items, olive oil is compared to the Jewish people. Just as the olive produces its best product, oil, under great pressure, so do the Jewish people thrive in difficult situations. Just as oil cannot mix with water, the Jews are commanded not to mix with the other nations.
Today Israel has 81,000 acres of olive orchards that produce 16,000 tons of extra virgin olive oil. While this is a fraction of what our Mediterranean neighbors (Spain, Greece and Italy) produce, quantity is not always what counts. Israeli oil has won top awards in competitions and almost all the oil we produce is the high quality extra virgin kind. Because Israel has such natural diversity, we can raise many different kinds of olives here, some suited to the Negev, others to the Golan. The soil and climate in each place produce a different taste, just like with grapes. The great variety of olives means you can have different tastes from different producers. Israel also irrigates olive orchards almost exclusively with brackish (salty) water or treated wastewater. Not only is this good for the environment, it means less fertilizer has to be used, creating a more organic product.
Despite the Galilee’s connection to olive oil, today one of the largest olive oil producers in Israel is Meshek Achiya in the hills of Binyamin. The story of its difficult beginnings belies its later success. In the late 1990s, a couple from Shilo in the Binyamin Region decided they wanted to settle the hills outside of the established community. Yossi and Ronit Shuker moved a few kilometers away, built a house and started planting olive trees. Eventually they were joined by other idealists and the community of Achiya (named for the Biblical prophet Achiya of Shiloh) was founded. This was before it became a widespread trend to start a new community on a hilltop, and definitely before the trend of organic “Hebrew” agriculture. Yossi was drawn to olive trees because he saw them as a symbol of connection to the land. After planting thousands of them (and often having to replant because of Arab vandalism), the Shukers decided to build an olive press that would serve the Jewish orchards around them. In 2001, Yossi was terribly wounded in a horrible accident at the press. He survived for six years but was completely paralyzed. His wife and some incredible neighbors decided to carry on Yossi’s life work. They built up the press into one of the largest and most successful olive oil producers on the market. Meshek Achiya’s oil has won numerous prizes and is sold all over Israel.
Olive orchard of Meshek Achiya
Yonyon99, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Oil or wine? Why not have both?
Poyraz 72, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons