The Oil that Fueled the Hanukkah Miracle

Sunday evening marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Jews celebrate their victory over a tyrant king and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, a small quantity of oil to light the Temple's menorah miraculously lasted eight days. Debbie Elliott finds out more about that oil from Rafael Frankel, an archaeologist in Israel.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This evening, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins. For eight days, Jews celebrate a miracle that occurred about 2,200 years ago. Here's the story in a nutshell.

A tyrant king from Damascus had ruled over the Jews and forced them to worship Greek gods. Jewish rebels fought for their freedom for three years and, victorious, reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem. Now to rededicate the temple, they needed oil to light the menorah but they could only find enough to keep the flames burning for one night. And here's the miracle: The oil lasted for eight days. In that time, they were able to make more oil and keep the eternal flame lit.

Dr. Rafael Frankel is an Israeli archaeologist who taught at the University of Haifa. He wouldn't confirm the miracle, but he is certain the oil was pressed from olives.

Dr. RAFAEL FRANKEL (Archaeologist): In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament in several places it speaks of pure-beaten olive oil for the light. Olive oil was the main oil of this region and very little other oil was ever used.

ELLIOTT: What did the menorah in the ancient temple look like?

Dr. FRANKEL: It was of gold and it had seven branches, one in the middle and three on either side, not like the Hanukkah lamp which has nine. And it's described in great detail also in the Bible in Exodus, Chapter 25. And there's the relief of it on Titus' Arch. You know, Titus was the Roman emperor who captured the Second Temple and he took his spoils in a triumphal march through Rome and there's a picture on his arch of the menorah and today it's the symbol of the state of Israel.

ELLIOTT: Now you're an expert on olive oil and the ancient world. It was used for lighting and presumably cooking back then. How did oil take on such a holy significance?

Dr. FRANKEL: Well, actually in ancient times, true, they used it for food and they used it a lot for light. But it was used probably even more for cosmetics. You have the nice bit in the Psalms 133 about `how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity like the precious oil upon the head that ran down upon the beard--Aaron's beard.' And that must have been very typical. And also oil was for purification. It was sort of--everything that they consecrated and that they used to anoint with oil, for instance, standing pillars, altars and even people. For instance, a priest, if he was sanctified, they poured oil on his head, and kings--King David and King Solomon, when they were crowned, they were anointed with oil. And the word `messiah' in English comes from the Hebrew `meshiha' which means to be anointed. And then Christ, actually, the word `Christ' is the Greek translation of messiah, of anointed, so that oil was very important in many spheres of ancient culture and life from all points of view.

ELLIOTT: How big of an industry was it then?

Dr. FRANKEL: It must have been very, very large. We, for instance, have a site, Ekron, from the end of--still from the First Temple period, with 50 oil presses in one little town. And I know many sites in the district where I live with five and 10 oil presses. It was a very large industry for the period, yes.

ELLIOTT: I understand the Philistines operated this industry.

Dr. FRANKEL: Not only, no. In this country, the live grows wild on the hills, in the woodland. In the early Bronze Age, four millennia BC, they were already cultivating the olives on a large scale and everybody whoever lived in this country more or less used to produce olive oil and we're still producing olive oil on a large scale. I can see an olive tree out of the--I'm looking out of the window and I can see an olive tree there.

ELLIOTT: Rafael Frankel edited the history and technology of olive oil in the Holy Land. We reached him at his home in the western Galilee.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. FRANKEL: Thank you.

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