The cultivation and refining of olive oil is very ancient. In her classic study of Food in History, Reay Tannahill highlights the fact that while the Greeks may have advanced the technology, it was the especially suitable soil of Israel and skill of native farmers that allowed the olive growing culture to boom.
In order to produce oil from the fruit, the first step required pressing the olives. The result was good – but not fine – grade olive oil that could be used for lubrication or illumination. But for edible oil, a second pressing was required and the resultant liquid was then filtered to remove any particulants. For the purest olive oil, the olive pulp was mashed by hand with mortar and pestle that assured a finer grade. It is the kind of oil prepared in this way to which the Torah alludes in the opening of the sidrah (Exodus 27:20) when the text speaks of “clear oil of beaten olives.”
Rabbi Bahya ben Yosef ibn Pakudah, a twelfth century Spanish jurist, philosopher, and author of the widely read Duties of the Heart, notes that there is a remarkable difference between the Israelites and their neighbors when it came to the use of fine olive oil. Other people reserved the best olive oil for eating. A fine, clear grade of oil would have been saved for meals. The cruder type of oil would be used for fuel. The Torah, however, tells us the opposite. The especially fine grade of olive oil was used for fuel, illuminating the Tabernacle. In other words, the Torah directs Jews to give the best to God; thereby teaching Jews to reserve their finest efforts for the things in life that are holy. Others may give the most time or the most attention to personal needs or selfish concerns. Jews, however, are instructed to look higher.
In a letter to the translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, Maimonides, a contemporary of Bahya, describes how his days are filled with visiting patients (Maimonides was a physician to the Caliph and his household), counseling those in need, and tending to communal affairs so that he barely had time for one light meal during the entire day. Only on Shabbat does he have any spare time and that is spent in study and teaching. Maimonides lived the life that Bahya described. He pursued those things that brought glory to God and comfort to others. Every Jew cannot be a Maimonides. But every Jew would do well to try.