It will need some lift

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member and past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.”

— Exodus 27:20

Of the seven species associated with Israel, land of wheat, barley, grape, fig and pomegranate, a land of olive oil and honey, I note in passing that olive oil, not olives, is one of the seven species.

Here Rashi, a medieval French rabbi and noted commentator on Talmud and Tanakh, is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to. Was Rashi also an olive oiler as well as a vintner? I wondered why Rashi bothered so with the specifics of olive oil, so I asked him. 


JSG: I notice in your commentary that you get quite specific about olive oil, its production, the kinds of olives, the sediment, etc.

Rashi: Yes, there are gradations: which oil is used to lift up the light of the menorah, that’s the one without sediment, the one that rises. First squeeze, as it were. Cold pressed. Then the one with sediment, that one can be used for meal offerings. Don’t you love the language though? You have to lift up a light in your holy place. It has to have some lift, your spirit life, like your words, without lift you are failing. You know how it feels when your light has no lift and your words are too heavy?


JSG: I do, I do know. 

Rashi: The light will rise by itself, so to speak. I pick this out of the Talmud. You know what I’m talking about? The light rises by itself? It’s natural, get out of the way. Learn listening, get quiet, find your silence, pay attention, the light will rise. Love that image.


JSG: Oh, man, I know, I do know. That’s not easy. It’s not so much what you do but how to get out of the way, make room for the light to rise, so to speak. 

Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I am speaking French, but it’s the same. That lift. Be careful about dull language in your holy places, words with no lift, light that does not rise by itself, but let’s get back to the oil. It’s making me hungry. We all know that the Italians have the finest cuisine. They get the food concept. Way ahead of the French.


JSG: I think so, too.

Rashi: In addition to the grape, I am also an aficionado of the olive, as you have picked up in my commentary. The olive grows only where winters are temperate. I’m a little far north for a good olive, but I often winter south in what you call Italy, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy. In the northern areas, the oils are milder. Of course, olio extravergine di oliva in Tuscany is, well, beaucoup beautiful. 


JSG: Liquid gold.

Rashi: Exactement


JSG: I also love the oil from Umbria, especially from around Spello.

Rashi: Not familiar with that. Don’t get to travel much in the 11th century. 


JSG: Fresh fava beans with a soft pecorino cheese, and a crusty bread to sop up the olio.

Rashi: Perfecto.


JSG: I have learned maybe from you that the domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6,000 BCE. 

Rashi: I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma near the Tyrrhenian coast that is supposed to be 3,500 years old, counting back from your time. That would mean it not only preceded the Greeks, but the Etruscans. It was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire. 


JSG: Extravergine, is it purer than vergine? 

Rashi: It’s a much abused system of classification. Extravergine simply means that the oil must be extracted from the first pressing of olives by mechanical means only, cold pressed, no chemicals, and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid. Vergine, same means of extraction, less than 2 percent acid. But first-pressed oils are often blended with lesser types while staying within the 1 percent limit. In the Torah, no blending. Now we have returned to spiritual subjects. Of course, the separations are an illusion, it’s all spirit, all over.


JSG: I suppose you mean that when we are speaking in a physical sense, it has spiritual implications. I get that. It’s the olive oil, not the olive, that’s one of the seven species. The olive releases its best qualities when squeezed. Don’t you love that?

Rashi: I do. The Italians have a wonderful expression, I will translate for you: The great olive oil must suffer.


JSG: Oh, that’s so Jewish. The physical-spiritual continuum.

Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?


JSG: Yes, I do.