Lighting menorahs with oil, an ancient Hanukkah tradition

Early tools for crushing olives to make olive oil, including an antique olive press that extracted oil for lamps. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Neal Augenstein,

LEESBURG, Va. – As Jews in the D.C. area and around the world light a menorah candle each night to celebrate Hanukkah, families in one synagogue are seeing how it used to be done in ancient times.

Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after Jews won a battle against Syrian-Greeks. After their victory, Jewish troops entered the destroyed temple and saw the holy lamp – which was supposed to remain lit – was not burning. They scoured the remains and found enough oil to rekindle the lamp for just one day.

But as the story goes, the oil lasted for eight days.

“A great miracle happened there, and that little bit of light remained lit for eight nights, which is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights,” says Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Va.

Today, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a menorah with multi-colored wax candles that are lit with matches.

“Before wax candles became common, the common substance that provided light was oil,” says Ragozin as he looks at a table of antique oil lamps, olive presses and pictures of stone devices that crushed olives.

“Olive trees were cultivated in the land of Israel for many, many centuries and were the primary source of the oil that was used in lamps,” he says.

During a Hanukkah party and oil-making demonstration at the synagogue, Ragozin points to a picture of an antique stone olive press, operated by a farm animal in a yoke.

“As that heavy stone went round and round, it would have crushed the olives, releasing their oil,” he says.

While Hanukkah candles are not typically lit with oil any more, oil still has a prominent role in the holiday, as many Hanukkah foods are fried in oil, including potato latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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