By: Renée Rockford
Interim President & CEO
In this week’s parsha Tetzaveh, we learn more details about the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary constructed by Moses as a place of worship for the wandering Hebrew tribes before they arrived in the Promised Land. Among the many instructions given by God, a lampstand was to be placed outside the inner curtain of the holiest place, and the lights were to be kept burning day and night. God said, “you shall command [them] to use pure olive oil for kindling the light of the lamps.”
The purity of olive oil comes from how the oil is extracted from the olives. For thousands of years, olive oil has been made by crushing the olives with various types of stone mills. However, in the most traditional manner of producing olive oil, the first—and purest—oil comes from obtaining (the biblical word is “beatening”) the oil from the fruit simply with a mortar and pestle. Such-beaten oil has no sediment and burns cleanly without smoke. We read, you “shall set up this light to burn continuously in the sanctuary. It will serve as a light for God for all generations.”
As a contemporary Jewish cook, salad assembler, dresser of grilled fish, maker of schnitzel, you will see the term “pure” or “light” on bottles of olive oil of whatever provenance. But my schooled culinary friends warn that we should not be fooled or confused into thinking that these English words carry the same significance as the word “pure” in this week’s parsha.
In Tetzaveh, “pure” refers to olive oil obtained by methods that only a few modern olive oil producers could—from an economic view—follow. For a 2020s Jewish cook, most interesting to note is that the words “pure” and “light” on the labels of modern olive oils signify prodigious manipulation of what we, for our part, call “virgin” olive oil.
In biblical terms, even modern “virgin” oil is not biblically “pure.” This latter, this “pure” olive oil of Tetzaveh—and this is what is so significant as a consideration for Shabbat—is oil made at home, on the kitchen table. Olive oil produced from the simplest of methods—“beaten” (even too strong a word here) of the mortar and pestle—is that which is freest of any impurities such as fruit flesh, scrapings of the wooden pit, or skin pigments, none of which are possible to be avoided with even the most careful of “first cold pressings” of the most sought-after extra-virgin olive oils of the present day.
Indeed, such homemade, even rustic oil would burn brighter, cleaner, and more significantly as light than any other olive oil obtained. That is the point, correct? God knew what mattered.
Wishing each of you the purest joy of Shabbat!
Please email Renée Rockford at email@example.com with questions or comments.