Shedding Light on the Menorah

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And you should command Bnai Yisrael and they should take to you pure oil from crushed olives for the lamp to ignite a constant light. (Sefer Shemot 27:20)

I. Pure oil for the Menorah

This pasuk opens Parshat Tetzaveh. Hashem directs Moshe to command Bnai Yisrael to provide pure olive oil for the Menorah. The oil used for the Menorah is special. It was of the highest quality. The pasuk describes it as pure and made from crushed olives. Rashi explains the process for extruding the oil. First, olives were collected from the top of the tree. These are the choicest olives. The olives were crushed – just enough to release their oil – and not ground. The crushed olives were placed in a basket. Only the oil that initially drained from the basket was used for the Menorah. This oil was very pure and clear [1].

Why did Hashem command Moshe to secure this oil? Previously, Hashem commanded Moshe to secure the materials to create the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. Among the materials was oil for the Menorah [2]. Rashi explains that Moshe was commanded to secure the special oil. In other words, Moshe was already instructed to secure this special oil for the Menorah among the materials collected for the Mishcan. Why in our parasha is he again instructed to secure the special oil for the Menorah?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno is among those who address this question.

“And they should take to you” When it is needed. This will be when the oil for the lamp that they have now contributed among the contributions for the Mishcan has been consumed. [This instruction is given] so that they should not think that the mitzvah of igniting the Menorah – with that [special] oil that they donated – is only temporary. (Sforno, Shemot 27:20) [3]

Rav Yehuda Cooperman Z”l in his notes on Sforno’s commentary explains that Moshe was previously commanded to secure for the Menorah the special oil described above. This oil was one of the supplies collected to create the Mishcan. When the Mishcan will be completed, this oil will be used to fuel the Menorah. When this initial supply of oil is consumed, new oil will be secured to maintain the flames of the Menorah. Moshe was commanded in our parasha to enforce the same standard for that oil. Like the oil initially collected, it must be extruded from the finest olives and meet the same standard of purity. In other words, the commandment in our parasha is needed to extend the standard of quality and purity indefinitely into the future.

II. Hashem reiterates the standard

Sforno’s interpretation of our pasuk is difficult to understand. It is based on a strange premise. It assumes that without renewal of the requirement for the best oil, any oil would have been acceptable. Consider an analogy. Your doctor gives you a prescription. He tells you that when the prescription is filled you should take the contents and mix them with distilled water and drink it. You precisely follow his directions. A few days later the doctor refills the order. Would you assume the new round of medication does not require distilled water? Of course not! Once he explained to you that the medication must be combined with water, you know that every round requires water.

Similarly, when the materials for the Mishcan were solicited, it was made clear that the Menorah requires the finest oil. Why was it necessary to reiterate this requirement for the oil used after the first oil was consumed?

III. Rambam’s treatment of the issue

The answer to this question is provided by an analysis of Rambam’s – Maimonides’ – comments on the issue. Rambam explains that only the finest and purest oil may be used for the Menorah. In which section of his code – the Mishne Torah – do you expect this law to be placed? Obviously, it must be in the section that discusses the laws of the Menorah – Temidim uMusafim! Surprisingly, the requirement for special olive oil is not mentioned in that section. But this does not mean that he makes no mention of the requirement.

Where does he note this requirement? He places it in the final chapter of Issurai Mizbe’ach. This section primarily discusses prohibitions against sacrificing defective animals in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. How does Rambam fit into this section the requirement of the finest oil for the Menorah? Rambam addresses this issue in the opening of the chapter.

Not every entity that is not unacceptable may be brought [as a sacrifice] as an initial preference. What is implied? If one is obligated to bring a burnt offering, one should not bring a weak and unattractive sheep and [justify oneself saying]: "It does not have a blemish." Concerning this, can be applied [the words of censure, Malachi 1:14]: "Cursed be the deceiver... [who sacrifices a blemished animal to G-d]." Instead, anyone who brings a sacrifice should bring from the highest quality. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Issurai Mizbe’ach 7:1)

Rambam is explaining that defective animals may not be brought as sacrifices because their blemishes or other defects render them unfit as an offering to Hashem. However, this does not mean that all animals that are free of defect are equally fit to be offered to Hashem. We should offer only those animals that are choice.

With this introduction, Rambam proceeds to apply this principle to other offerings – to grain offerings and to libations. He explains that there are nine grades of oil. All are fit to be used in menachot – grain offerings [4]. If all are fit, why are they graded? Rambam explains that this is consistent with his opening comments. From among the oils that are fit, one should ideally choose the best oil.

In this context, he explains that only the highest grades of olive oil can be used for the Menorah. In other words, for menachot higher grades are preferable. For the Menorah, they are an absolute requirement [5].

What do we learn from Rambam’s treatment of this requirement? Why does he place it in this section and not in the laws of the Menorah? He is explaining the reason that the finest oil is required for the Menorah. It is not because a lesser quality olive oil will not burn well; its flame will be adequate. We may not use these inferior oils because the Torah demanded that we use the best – the most refined oil. For the Menorah, it is not preferable to use the best; it is an absolute requirement.

IV. Making a sacrifice to serve Hashem

Before we can explain Sforno’s interpretation of our pasuk, let us consider a final comment of Rambam. He closes this chapter of Issurai Mizbe’ach as follows:

In this way, one who desires to gain merit for himself, subjugate his evil inclination, and amplify his generosity should bring his sacrifice from the most desirable and superior type of the item he is bringing. For it is written in the Torah [Beresheit 4:4]: "And Hevel brought from his chosen flocks and from the superior ones and G-d turned [favored] to Hevel and his offering."

The same applies to everything given for the sake of the Almighty who is good. It should be of the most attractive and highest quality. If one builds a house of prayer, it should be more attractive than his own dwelling. If he feeds a hungry person, he should feed him from the best and most tasty foods of his table. If he clothes one who is naked, he should clothe him with his attractive garments. If he consecrates something, he should consecrate the best of his possession. And so [VaYikra 3:16] states: "All of the superior quality should be given to G-d." (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Issurai Mizbe’ach 7:11)

Rambam explains that in performing any commandment we can subjugate our yetzer ha’ra – our evil inclination. We are provided the opportunity to order our priorities. We do this by performing the commandment with the best of our possessions. We give that which is precious to us; we make a sacrifice. Rambam provides moving examples. We build synagogues that are more attractive than our homes. We clothe the poor in fine garments. We feed the needy with the best foods.

This is the offering which you shall take from them: gold, silver, brass, blue, purple, scarlet, fine linen, goats' hair, rams' skins dyed red, sea cowhides, acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense, onyx stones, and stones to be set for the ephod and for the breastplate. (Sefer Shemot 25:3-7)

V. The donations to the Mishcan

Now, we are prepared to understand Sforno’s comments. Moshe was required to secure the materials for the creation of the Mishcan. He asked that the contributors donate valuable possessions. Fine dyed wools and linen, gold, silver, brass, and precious stones. Also, they were asked to give the best olive oil. Through these donations, they fulfilled the objective identified by Rambam. Each donor subjugated his yetzer ha’ra by declaring his priorities. He gave from his most precious possessions for the creation of the Mishcan. He made a personal sacrifice. In this context, ordinary olive oil was unacceptable. Contributing ordinary oil is not a sacrifice and expresses the wrong priority!

Once the materials for the Mishcan were collected, it was not self-evident that inferior grades of olive oil would not be acceptable for the Menorah. The highest grades would be preferable, but would they be absolutely required?

Let’s consider another analogy. I bought a new shirt. The shirt came with metal collar stays. The manufacturer uses metal and not plastic stays to communicate the quality of its shirts. Before I laundered the shirt, I removed the stays and promptly misplaced them. Must I replace the missing stays with metal ones? Of course not. The manufacturer had a reason for using high-quality stays. It was communicating a message. I care about function and plastic will work.

If Hashem did not command Moshe, in our parasha, to require only the highest quality and most pure olive oil, what would he have concluded? He would have concluded that Hashem required the contributions to the Mishcan be of only the best, most precious materials. Donors were required to make a sacrifice. He would have assumed that moving forward, any grade of olive oil is acceptable for the Menorah. The best oil is only preferable. Therefore, Hashem commanded Moshe to renew the requirement. Only the best oil may be used.

VI. Clarifying our values

A message emerges from this discussion. We are obligated to perform the Torah’s mitzvot. Our intent is to execute our obligation – to fulfill the requirements of the mitzvah. We recognize that we can enhance our performance by beautifying the mitzvah. We can buy a more beautiful etrog or invest in a more carefully made set of tefillin. However, Rambam is teaching us that there is another aspect to our performance of a mitzvah. Every mitzvah we perform provides an opportunity to clarify our values. We can meet the requirements of the mitzvah, or we can make sacrifices to perform it in the best way. When I place a beautifully written mezuzah on my door, I am not only elevating the performance by using a better mezuzah. I am prioritizing. I am using my wealth for the performance of a mitzvah. I am molding my values.

1 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 27:20.

2 Sefer Shemot 25:6.

3 This translation is punctuated to best accommodate Rav Cooperman’s interpretation.

4 Menachot include olive oil.

5 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Issurai Mizbe’ach 7:8-10.