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Olives and Oil

During these days of Chanuka, everybody is talking about the miracle of the Menorah and the jug of shemen zayit zach (pure olive oil). What people don’t realize is that the word shemen is not the only Hebrew word for oil—the word yitzhar bears the same meaning. In this special Chanuka feature, we will explore the difference between the two words and their usage.

The common Hebrew word for oil is shemen. We may be familiar with that word from the phrase shemen zayit zach (pure olive oil) which the Torah requires for the lighting of the Menorah in the Tabernacle and Holy Temple. However, the Bible also uses another, less common word for oil—yitzhar. While the word shemen and its derivatives appear close to two-hundred times in the Bible, the word yitzhar is only found in about one-tenth as many instances. As we have already encountered many times, the Hebrew language is not mere happenstance but is a divine language created by intelligent design. How then can we understand the true meaning of these two different words for oil and the exact differences between them?

Rabbi Menachem ibn Saruk (920–970) defines yitzhar as olive oil. On the other hand, the word shemen is correlated to the word shuman/shamen (fat) and refers to the fatty, glyceride property of oil. Based on this, we can argue that the word yitzhar by definition refers to olive oil, while the word shemen may refer to any type of oil. In fact, the very phrase shemen zayit zach implies that shemen alone does not intrinsically mean olive oil. The word yitzhar, on the other hand, is never juxtaposed to zayit (olive) in the Bible, rather it inherently refers to olive oil.

Radak (1160–1234) in Sefer ha-Shorashim writes that yitzhar is the word for oil immediately as it emerges from the press. Indeed, all instances of the usage of the word yitzhar in the Bible are in the context of olive oil as an agricultural product—the fruit of the olive press. Moreover, a verb form of the word yitzhar is found in Job 24:11, which Rashi (there) explains refers to the act of producing olive oil. According to this explanation, both yitzhar and shemen may refer directly to olive oil, but yitzhar refers to olive oil specifically in its freshest state immediately after production.

Radak’s father, R. Yosef Kimchi writes (in Sefer ha-Gilui) that the root of the word yitzhar is tzohar (light). Radak explains his father’s assertion by commenting that oil is a particularly clear and shiny substance and noting that, for the same reason, olive oil is elsewhere called “gold” (Zecharia 5:12). The word tzohar also means “noon”, so Ibn Ezra (to Job 24:11) writes that olive oil is called “noon” because it is used for lighting candles which offer light resembling the sun at noontime.

Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Yadler (1843–1917) writes that the word yitzhar does not inherently mean olive oil, but simply refers to whatever oil is commonly used to light candles in any given locale. Since in the Holy Land, olive oil was normally used for lighting candles, when the Torah refers to yitzhar it means olive oil. However, in other places other oils were used for lighting candles: In Babylon, people used sesame oil; in Media, nut oil; in Alexandria, radish oil; in Cappadocia, naphtha (see Shabbat 26b).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740–1814) in his work Cheshek Shlomo explains that the root of the word shemen is SHIN-MEM. That root is at the core of the word shahm (“there”) and shem (“name”). Both of those words denote abstract ideas, rather than something concrete or tangible. “There” is abstract because it refers to a place which is not in front of me, and one’s “name” is an abstract characteristic which is used to identify him, but cannot be perceived by the senses. In the same way, the Heavens (shamayim) too are abstract, as they represent the spiritual element of creation which rises above the physical element—the Earth. Following this analogy, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that shemen is related to shamayim because it too rises to the top when mixed with water.

Rabbi Pappenheim finds a different source for the etymology of the word yitzhar. He explains that its direct ancestors are the word tzohar (“luminescent stone” or “window”), which brings exudes much light, and tzaharayim (“noon”), which denotes the brightest time of the day. In that vein, yitzhar means “olive oil” because that was the fuel most commonly used for bringing out an abundance of light.

To sum up, we discussed three possibly ways of differentiating between yitzhar and shemen. First, we proffered the argument that the word yitzhar inherently refers to “olive oil”, while shemen simply means “oil”. Second, we cited Radak’s explanation that yitzhar refers specifically to olive oil right after production, while shemen may refer to olive oil in later states (e.g., in packaged form, etc…). Third, we cited the view of Rabbi Yadler that yitzhar does not inherently refer to olive oil, but only as a result of societal norms in the Holy Land does the word bear that meaning.

But wait—there’s more!

The word yitzhar also appears nine times in the Bible as a proper name; Yitzhar was the grandson of Levi and father of Korach (Exodus 6:18, et al.) The Midrash relates a fascinating idea connecting Korach, his father, and oil: Korach saw that his father’s name Yitzhar is related to oil and took that as an omen that he will be successful in his rebellion against Moses. This is because Moses’ name was given as a result of him being “drawn from the water” (Exodus 2:11), associating Moses with water. Korach thought that just as oil always sits on top of water, he will be able to come out on top in a battle against Moses.

However, Rabbi Yadler explains, in reality the name Yitzhar alludes not to Korach himself, but to Korach’s descendant the prophet Samuel who would later use specially-made ritual olive oil to anoint King David and begin the Messianic line.

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Reuven Chaim Klein

Founding Editor at Veromemanu
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is a known scholar, respected author, and long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem. Reuven Chaim lives with his family in Beitar Illit, Israel.
Reuven Chaims' articles also appear weekly on ohr.edu and on https://ohr.edu/this_week/whats_in_a_word/ and in the Jewish Press.

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Reuven Chaim Klein