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Past Articles:
HANUKAH, THE OLIVE TREE, AND JEWISH UNITY

By: Dr. Jon Greenberg

After the victory of the Maccabees, the offensive idolatrous practices and materials were removed from the Temple and the altar, and the menorah and other furnishings were cleaned and repaired. Why was the menorah chosen as the symbol of this restoration?

We recognize the significance of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days.  But if we look at the second book of Maccabees (10:1-8) we see that the end of the Maccabean war was also an occasion to make up for missing the celebration of the holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot 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) wrapped in ivy was used at that time, and so, the lulav and the etrog could also have become the primary symbol of  Hanukah.

We consider, however, that olive oil is symbolic in a number of ways which relate to achdut, unity. 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 is known as Tu b’Av.

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 was lifted (Num. 36:1-12). This was also the day when the border guards who prevented movement between the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were removed, permitting all to visit the Temple on festival days (I Kings 12:33).  Also Tu b’Av is the day when the war against the tribe of Benjamin ended (Judges 19-21). 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 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 (Judges 21). 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 describes (1:43-55 and 2:42-44). Celebration of the re-lighting of the olive-oil menorah at the end of this war symbolized the reunification of the Jewish people. It is therefore fitting that throughout the generations, we look to the menorah as the chosen symbol for the festival of Hanukah.

Dr. Jon Greenberg is the creator of Torah Flora. Torah Flora is a website devoted to the study of plants and nature in Torah and Jewish tradition. Dr. Greenberg also presents live programs on this subject for audiences of all ages and educational levels, often at synagogues, yeshivot, and botanical gardens.
To arrange a program for your school or organization please contact him at jon@torahflora.org.