The olive tree, the post-Chanukah period, and Jewish unity

(Why the menorah became the symbol of Chanukah; January 2007)

After the victory of the Maccabees, the offensive idolatrous practices and materials were removed from the Temple and the altar, the menorah (candelabrum) and other furnishings were cleaned and repaired. Why was the menorah chosen as the symbol of this restoration? Certainly there was the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, but the second book of Maccabees (10:1-8) describes how the end of the Maccabean war was also an occasion to make up for the holiday of Sukkot that could not be celebrated when the Maccabees and their followers were hiding in remote areas and fighting a guerilla war. A unique kind of four species (lulav and etrog set) wrapped in ivy was used at that time and could also have become the primary symbol of Chanukah.

But olive oil carries other meanings, too. Olive trees are among the very few plants that flower and bear fruit simultaneously in all of Israel’s ecological regions, symbolizing Jewish national unity. In addition, the developing olives on the trees begin to accumulate oil around mid-summer’s day-the fifteenth of the month of Av. This day, known as Tu b’Av, is referred to in local Arab folklore as olive day, the time when crushed olives first produce visible drops of oil.

What is the religious significance of Tu b’Av? Three historical events occurred on this day. On Tu b’Av, the prohibition of intermarriage among the twelve tribes of Israel (Num. 36:1-12) was lifted. This was also the day when the border guards who prevented movement between the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were removed (I Kings 12:33, Ta’anit 30-31), permitting all to visit the Temple on festival days, and the day when the war against the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-21) ended. Like the olive tree that begins to accumulate oil on this day, these events all represent a strengthening of national unity. During the ban on the tribe of Benjamin, people sought a way to find spouses when the ban restricted their choices. A practice developed (Judges 21) of unmarried women going to the vineyards to dance in identical borrowed white dresses, as the single men watched from hiding places and considered whom to approach. The identical dresses were meant to obscure trivial differences in style and wealth, and to focus attention on character and piety. Again, we see an attempt to minimize individual differences and to stress what binds the Jewish nation together.

The Maccabean war was not only a war against foreign domination. It was also a civil war, as the first book of Maccabees (1: 43-55 and 2:42-44) describes. Celebration of the re-lighting of the olive-oil menorah at the end of this war symbolized the reunification of the Jewish people.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *