Tomorrow, my Jewish friends begin celebrating Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and the Miracle of the Cruse of Oil. The story from which this millennia old celebration derives is an Aggadah (lore or tale) depicted in the Babylonian Talmud. Upon the liberation of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt against Seleucid Empire (a West Asian Greek State), the last jug of pure olive oil, only enough to light a lamp for a single day, miraculously lasted for eight.
This story and the traditions it spawned really illustrate the the central role olive oil played in the ancient world; not just to the ancient Jews but to the entire Mediterranean. King David prised his olive groves and warehouses so much he hired guards to protect Israel's supply. To the Ancient Greek the olive was of such singular importance it could only have been created by the goddess Athena, no less. Hippocrates called it "the great healer" and Homer "liquid gold". Payment for trading was often demanded in olive oil by the Romans, who considered people that ate animal fats as barbarians.
Olive tree of Vouves, Crete is 3000 years old & still produces olives
The olive was first cultivated around 5000 BCE in ancient Israel on the Carmel coast, evidenced by Kfar Samir, the site of a Neolithic olive press. Cultivation spread beyond the Eastern Mediterranean with the Phoenician and Greek empires, all the way to Iberia, North Africa and Western Asia. Throughout the 3rd millennium BCE, Greece and Egypt had built enormous industries around olive oil, making it one of the most valuable and useful commodities.
Beyond industry, olive oil holds spiritual significance in Jewish life. In Exodus, God gives a recipe for the anointing oil 'shemen hamishchah'. It is said to be made with olive oil mixed with myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, sweet calamus or cannabis. It was used to anoint all things holy from the Tabernacle to prophets to kings.
From 'Cervera Bible' 1299 by Joseph ha-Zarefiti
Which brings us to the importance of olive oil in the ritual of Hanukkah. Lighting the candles on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah purposefully illuminates the dark - a spark of hope in a sea of despair and oppression.
In the northern hemisphere, the olive harvest occurs in the month of Kislev (November-December in the Gregorian calendar), the same month as Hanukkah. This illustrates the scope of symbolism olive oil holds in unifying spirituality, people and land. And the olive is an appropriate symbol of spiritual victory, for it appears as a small, undistinguished fruit. Yet within it has the potential to light an entire room.