This week’s parasha begins with the commandment to kindle the Menorah in the Temple and the Mishkan (mobile Temple): “Command the Israelites to bring you pure olive oil, pressed for illumination, to kindle the lamp every night.” (Shemot 27:20)
We all kindle Shabbat lights and Chanukah lights. Some of us will use candles and some oil. The Torah specifies that for the Temple Menorah only olive oil could be used.
The Torah is very specific about which kind of olive oil could be chosen. Look around the oil section in the supermarket and there are many varieties of oil: regular olive oil, refined olive oil, virgin olive oil, or extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). This last type of oil, which is obtained from the first cold-pressing of the olives, parallels the oil produced for the Menorah. As Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Menachot 86a) expresses it:
“He must press the olives in a mortar, but he may not grind them in a mill, so that they will not contain sediment. After he has extracted the first drop of oil, he places the olives into a mill and grinds them. The resulting second oil is unfit for the menorah but is fit for meal offerings.”
Connoisseurs of olive oil will know that there are subtle differences of aroma and flavour between an extra-virgin oil and other varieties. Heat and other processes destroy the delicate balance in the make-up of the oil. But when we are talking about oil as a fuel for lighting a lamp why should it matter if it is extra-virgin or regular oil? Indeed the Midrash points out that normally, better quality oil is used for food and secondary oil for fuel. Why is the Torah so particular about using the best quality oil for the Menorah?
Rabbi Elie Munk (died 1981) explains that the Torah is teaching us a symbolic lesson here. In matters of the spirit, when we are communicating the light of the Torah, we should always aim for the highest possible quality. The light of the Menorah represents the light of our heritage. We need to deploy the finest of our resources so that its message can penetrate with the greatest chance of success.