Thursday, December 06, 2007

Chanukka: What Is The Idea of Preferring Poppy-Seed Oil Or Olive Oil?

On Shabbat 23a:

אמר רב ששת אכסנאי חייב בנר חנוכה א"ר זירא מריש כי הוינא בי רב משתתפנא בפריטי בהדי אושפיזא בתר דנסיבי איתתא אמינא השתא ודאי לא צריכנא דקא מדליקי עלי בגו ביתאי: א"ר יהושע בן לוי כל השמנים כולן יפין לנר ושמן זית מן המובחר אמר אביי מריש הוה מהדר מר אמשחא דשומשמי אמר האי משך נהורי טפי כיון דשמע לה להא דרבי יהושע בן לוי מהדר אמשחא דזיתא אמר האי צליל נהוריה טפי ואריב"ל כל השמנים יפין לדיו ושמן זית מן המובחר איבעיא להו לגבל או לעשן ת"ש דתני רב שמואל בר זוטרא כל השמנים יפין לדיו ושמן זית מן המובחר בין לגבל בין לעשן רב שמואל בר זוטרא מתני הכי כל העשנים יפין לדיו ושמן זית מן המובחר אמר רב הונא כל השרפין יפין לדיו ושרף קטף יפה מכולם:

As Soncino translates:
R. Joshua b. Levi said: All oils are fit {for the Hanukkah lamp}, but olive oil is of the best. Abaye observed: At first the Master [Rabbah] used to seek poppy-seed oil, saying, The light of this is more lasting; but when he heard this [dictum] of R. Joshua b. Levi, he was particular for olive oil, saying, This yields a clearer light.

R. Joshua b. Levi also said: All oils are fit for ink, and olive oil is of the best. The scholars propounded: for kneading or for smoking? — Come and hear: For R. Samuel b. Zutra recited: All oils are fit for ink, and olive oil is of the best, both for kneading and for smoking. R. Samuel b. Zutra recited it thus: All soots are fit for ink: and olive oil is the best. R. Huna said: All gums are good for ink, but balsam gum is the best of all.

Despite the post-Talmudic suggestion, I do not agree with the assertion that olive oil is better for lighting the Chanukkah menorah because the miracle was done with olive oil. I do not think that this is readily read into the gemara, and furthermore that the gemara gives its own explicit reasons.

But why, pray tell, are these reasons persuasive. Frankly, who cares that poppy-seed oil lasts longer? Who cares that olive oil is clearer?

The answer (assuming that the context is indeed the Chanukkah lamp rather than the Shabbat lamp), is perhaps some issue of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle. If it lasts longer, it reaches a wider audience. If the light is clearer or brighter, it is more noticeable.

But then, why exactly are we choosing one over the other. Each oil optimizes some aspect.

A digression -- I would suggest that both poppy-seed oil and olive oil are min hamuvchar, that is, preferable, in some way. Each oil optimizes some worthy aspect, and there is no oil which will optimize all aspects at once, over all other options. Rabba independently came up with this idea, which was a good idea. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi independently came up with a different idea. But the matter appears to be one of personality. Rabba was humble, and greatly admired Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and wished to emulate him, and follow his halachic tradition about optimality. Rabba then offered a reason why olive oil is very good in this respect. I am not certain that this is a matter of pesak, such that someone who chooses poppy-seed oil, or some other oil for its own positive aspect, is not fulfilling the precept in a min hamuvchar fashion, at least to some extent, and such that every other person has some obligation to follow Rabba's new lead.

In terms of human beings as well, different people have different strengths, and we should not judge a person's value just on one criterion. Not everyone is the best Talmudic scholar, but others optimize other traits, such as artistic expression, honor, etc. Ner Hashem Nishmat Adam,
and these lamps might be min hamuvchar in different ways.

Now that we are done with that homiletic digression, we may return back to the point of this post. Why should these specific aspects be optimized, and why might we say that the optimization inherent in olive oil is a better optimization inherent in poppy-seed oil?

I think the answer might lie with a determination of which best captures the spirit of the nes chanukka being publicized by these lamps. According to the gemara, the miracle of Chanukka was that a small cruse of oil lasted a full eight days. Thus, according to Rabba's initial suggestion, poppy-seed oil is quite appropriate. Of all oils, it burns the longest, and so we can commemorate that particular aspect of the miracle. This is min hamuvchar.

But then, why not use impure oil? Tumah hutra beTzibbur, so it is quite likely that they could have. But the whole point was avoiding Hellenic influence, and they sought only the pure oil. It was this insistence on purity that led to the entire situation of lacking oil, which in turn necessitated the miracle. Therefore, it is perhaps even more appropriate that one should use olive oil, even though it will burn more quickly, if one chooses this in order to optimize the aspect of צליל, clarity and purity.

Sorry for the abundance of homiletics in this post, but this might actually be so.

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