The Paradox Of Oil

Traditions Chanukah
Traditions Chanukah: Understanding The Chanukah Oil


By Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson

Why Celebrate Oil?

The kindling of a menorah during the eight days of Chanukah commemorates an ancient miracle that occurred in our Jerusalem Holy Temple, some 2300 years ago. Following the victory of the Jews over their Greek oppressors who desecrated the Temple, a little cruse of unsoiled olive oil found in the Temple lasted and burned for eight days, until the Jews managed to purchase new pure oil for the daily kindling of the Temple candelabra. To commemorate this display of Divine graciousness in a world usually enslaved to nature, the leaders of Israel instituted the eight-day holiday of Chanukah, in which we would kindle a menorah each night.

In that sense, oil embodies the essence of the Chanukah experience and serves as the main focus of the festival of lights. Indeed, in many a Jewish households, the Chanukah lamps consist of wicks dipped in olive oil, similar to the Temple Menorah lamps, and throughout the holiday we eat various foods soaked in oil, from latkes to donuts.

Why do we, living more then two millennia after the original Chanukah story, celebrate the event of an increase in olive oil? Why create an entire holiday that is focused on oil?


Olive oil contains four qualities worth reflecting upon, particularly as they seem to conflict with each other.

A) Olive oil is produced by crushing and beating ripe olives. The olive must be severely humbled and pressed in order to emit its oil.

B) Olive oil, as many other oils extracted from minerals, plants and animals, penetrates solid substances deeply. We all know how difficult it is to remove the oily grease that makes its way into our fingers or our clothes. Various oils have been used throughout history as remedies for bodily wounds and diseases, since oil penetrates the body far beyond its external tissue.

C) Oil does not mix with other liquids. When you attempt to mix oil with, say water, the oil will remain distinct and will not dissolve in the water.

D) Not only will oil not mix and become dissolved in other liquids, rather staying in place or sinking downward, but furthermore, oil will rise, floating atop the other liquids.

This seems paradoxical. Is oil “humble” or “arrogant”? It is beaten badly, yet it rises to the top!


In the writings of Jewish mysticism, all physical properties and qualities of any existing object are seen as continuums of their metaphysical properties. Every object originates in the realm of the spirit, embodied by a particular sublime energy. Then the energy evolves to assume a physical reincarnation, giving rise to particular physical characteristics that mirror their spiritual source.

This, parenthetically, constitutes an extremely rich component of Judaism. From the vantage point of Torah, the truths of science, physics, chemistry, biology etc. and the truths of philosophy, spirituality and psychology are merged together in a perfect mosaic, since the physical evolves from the spiritual.

The same principle applies to oil as well. The four above-mentioned qualities displayed in oil are essentially a physical manifestation of four spiritual and psychological attributes from where oil originates. They, in turn, evolve and assume the four physical forms of expression outlined above.

Traditions Chanukah


Oil fuels light. If a human being wishes to become like oil, a source of light and warmth for himself, his family, his community and his world, he or she must learn to cultivate the four properties characterizing oil.

A) The crushing and pressing of the olives represents the notion of humbleness, the antithesis of arrogance and self-inflation.

B) The direct result of this “pressing” is your ability to “become” oil and penetrate others deeply. When you’re haughty and pompous, either because of too much self-confidence or because of too little self-confidence, you are incapable of sharing yourself with others or allowing them to share themselves with you in a real way. You are too caught up with yourself, so you remain detached. When you are crushed a little bit, either by choice or by life’s circumstances, a real “you” emerges, one that can affect other people’s hearts and souls profoundly.

When you are humble, you can become open to another person’s depth, and you do not remain stuck in your own paradigm. When somebody has just been run over, you can feel their pain instead of interpreting it as listening to the voices coming from the ground.

C) Yet, humility and a genuine relationship should not cause either party to lose their individual identity and to dissolve in the personality of the other. The beauty and magic of a relationship lies precisely on the fact that two distinct individuals choose to share themselves with each other. Just like oil, you know how to feel and experience another human being deeply, while still not becoming consumed and nullified by the other’s identity.

The holy master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once remarked: “If I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, I am not I and you are not you; but if I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are.” Now we can begin to schmooz.

D) This threefold process of crushing yourself, bonding with others and at the same time remaining distinct allows you to gain a true appreciation of your unique individual place in G-d’s world. In a mature, sensitive and authentic way, you realize that in some small fashion you own something that nobody else in the history of humanity ever had or ever will have. It is not arrogance; it is an appreciation of your indispensible uniqueness in the narrative of history rooted in the idea that each of us conceived with purpose and love. Just like oil, you too rise to the top.

This was the deeper significance of a miracle that caused oil to increase, and it is why we celebrate by focusing on oil. The festival of Chanukah comes to teach ordinary human beings how to become like oil. If we wish to light up our lives and the world around us with the fires of goodness, morality and G-d liness, we ought to take a good and deep look at the olive oil in our menorahs, for Judaism always taught that we are like oil: If we know how small we are, we will realize how great we can become.