Sunday, October 23, 2005

parshat Noach: Realia, Daf Yomi (Eruvin 18b), and Fresh Olives

The other week, I went shopping in Kissena Farms, in Kew Gardens Hills, and I saw some fresh green olives at $1.99 a pound. I thought I would purchase some and figure out how to eat them or prepare. Another Jewish guy saw me taking them and started taking some himself. Another Jewish man saw me, and asked me how one eats them. I shrugged, saying I was planning on looking it up afterwards. He asked a worker there, who suggested he try one for free. He did, and promptly spit it out. The worker laughed. Apparently, olives are very bitter when fresh. I tried one when I got home and had to drink some juice to get the bitter taste out of my mouth.

To prepare fresh olives, people often first use commercial lye to remove the bitterness, then soak the olives in a few changes of water to remove the lye, and finally, they pickle them. I did not want to put lye in my olives so I used the recipe titled Stan's Green Olives (and half ripe ones) on the Olive Oil Source's web page. This entails pouring boiling water over the olives and leaving them for 24 hours, then pouring off the now cold water and repeating another 3 times. Then, placing them in brine in a jar (with a layer of olive oil on top) for a while to pickle them.

Thus, the taste of olives we are used to is not really the natural taste of olives but rather of pickled olives which have first lost their bitterness.

Someone pointed out to my father-in-law that Rashi cites a midrash which makes reference to the bitterness of olives. In Bereishit 8:11:

י וַיָּחֶל עוֹד, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים אֲחֵרִים; וַיֹּסֶף שַׁלַּח אֶת-הַיּוֹנָה, מִן-הַתֵּבָה. 10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.
יא וַתָּבֹא אֵלָיו הַיּוֹנָה לְעֵת עֶרֶב, וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ; וַיֵּדַע נֹחַ, כִּי-קַלּוּ הַמַּיִם מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ. 11 And the dove came in to him at eventide; and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.
Rashi writes:
it had plucked: Heb. טָרָף,“he plucked.” The Midrash Aggadah explains it טָרָף as an expression of food, and interprets בְּפִיהָ as an expression of speech. It [the dove] said: Let my food be as bitter as an olive in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He, and not as sweet as honey in the hands of flesh and blood. — [Sanh. 108b]
This midrash also occurs on Eruvin 18b. Note that Rashi is the one who says בְּפִיהָ as an expression of speech, not the gemara. One might say instead that it was טָרָף בְּפִיהָ, food for its mouth, thus reinforcing the midrashic reinterpretation, and the dove did not speak, but by grasping the olive-leaf she was symbolically sending this message.

I suppose had always reread this as "bitter as an olive leaf," or bitter as the olives that we eat, which are salty, not bitter. It turns out fresh olives, not prepared by the hands of flesh and blood (humans), but naturally, as prepared by God, are incredibly bitter. I now have greater appreciation for this midrash, now that I actually understand it.

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