When the Oil Meets the Cup

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

The very first verse of this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, states as follows:

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

Exodus, 27:20.

Details regarding the subjects of the Torah’s commandments are often vague — and sometimes downright obtuse. For example, Jews shake the etrog on Sukkot, because of an obscure verse that commands us to take “the fruit of a tree that is beautiful” (Leviticus, 23:40) – which our sages have told us means the etrog.

Not so the Torah’s description of the oil used to light the Menorah. Here, the Torah identifies, in precise detail, exactly the type and quality oil that is to be used. It must be pure – without sediment. It must be from olives. And it must be crushed — not ground. The Talmud teaches that there are three levels of olive oil, and only one — the very first drop from the olive — is considered pure, and may be used to kindle the Menorah.

Kabbalistically, this process of refining oil for the purpose of lighting the Menorah and illuminating the world was not merely about physical oil, not merely about the physical Menorah, and not merely about physical light.

The Hebrew word for “oil” is “shemen.” It is said that etymologically, or at least semantically, the English word “semen” is derived from or related to shemen. Indeed, we frequently see the Hebrew’s “sh” sound being read as an “s” in English (which is still pronounced “sh” in other languages), such as the Hebrew name Shimon, which is pronounced Simon in English, or Shaul, which is pronounced Saul.

But the link between shemen and semen is not merely in the similarity of the words. Shemen, or oil, represents the distilled essence of every form of existence. According to Kabbalah, as the olives are taken from the tree and crushed to produced pure oil, so too does the male seed originate in the brain in a spiritual form, then it travels via the spinal cord to the testicles, the olives, where the now-physical seed churns and boils until the semen is distilled and prepared to be delivered into the female.

Perhaps this also provides additional insight into the verse in Song of Songs, in which the female narrator murmurs: “Because of the fragrance of your goodly oil, your name is ‘oil poured forth.’ Therefore, the maidens loved you.” Song of Songs, 1:3.

The female, who receives the semen, is represented by the Menorah, into the cups of which the oil is poured. (Is it coincidental that the modern-day Hebrew word for vagina is “kus,” spelled the same as the Hebrew word for “cup”?)

According to the Kabbalah, just as the golden Menorah takes and holds the oil, bringing it to its far superior state of a burning flame, illuminating its surroundings, it is similarly the female’s role to take the male seed, to hold it and nurture it, and transform it into a human being destined to transform the world around him or her.

In last week’s Double Mitzvah, we noted some of the qualities of gold: warm, malleable, and associated with the emotional characteristics of love. Most of the vessels in the Holy Temple were made out of or plated with gold. The acacia wood of the Tabernacle was plated with gold. Indeed, the Talmud teaches that, if the collective wealth of the community permits, then vessels that had been made out of any other materials should be replaced with vessels made out of gold.

Significantly, however, there are only two vessels that were not only required to be made out of gold, but were to be beaten from a single piece of gold, and it was not permitted to make them by welding together or attaching different pieces of gold. These are: the cover for the Ark with the cherubim, and the Menorah. See Exodus, 25:18 and 25:31.

Sometimes our expressions of love can be a patchwork of a variety of feelings, motivations and urges. What we call “love” might actually be an expression of lust, need, insecurity, loneliness, and perhaps some actual love too. As the Mishnah states, “Any love that is dependent on something — when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases.” Ethics of our Fathers, 5:16.

The Menorah had to be hammered from a single block of gold because the love that she represents, like the oil that she carries, is pure, unadulterated, and of a singular focus. It is this love that has the power to illuminate and transform the world around her.
Shabbat shalom!