Non-Edible Oils for Lighting the Menorah

How is olive oil produced?

There are approximately seven hundred olive varieties, or cultivars, whose distinctive tastes and aromas are developed and marketed, just as viniculture develops distinctive varieties of fine wine. Specialty olive oil producers have mastered the methods whereby they breed, grow, and produce their oil. The highest quality olive oil is produced by painstakingly harvesting the fruit by hand to assure that it is not damaged, even though this method drives up the cost tremendously. Olives for quality oils are picked and milled within hours, to minimize oxidation and enzymatic reactions, which leave unpleasant tastes and odors in the oil and decrease its fragrant qualities. These bouquet oils, like vintage wines, compete among connoisseurs for their taste. These oils are the Rolls-Royce of the olive industry and are sold privately or in gourmet shops, similar to the way one would acquire vintage wines.

Olives are almost unique among oil sources, in that olive oil can be consumed in its crude form without refining. Almost all other edible oils: soy, canola, corn, cottonseed, peanut, palm, etc., require extensive refining using heat and chemicals to make the oil palatable. Furthermore, unrefined olive oil conserves most of its nutrients, whereas refining often destroys them.

What is extra virgin oil, and what is virgin oil?

Oil produced without refining is called virgin or cold-press oil. The term cold press can have many meanings, but in common parlance it refers to oil that is extracted without heating the olives or the use of chemicals. However, one should bear in mind that the term “cold press” actually has no legal meaning. Someone selling refined oil as cold press would be violating an industry standard, but cannot be prosecuted for violating the law. It is also important to note that the term virgin oil has no legal meaning in the United States, although there are many countries in the world where the term has a legal meaning. In those countries, someone selling refined olive oil as virgin oil can be prosecuted. However, someone selling refined oil as virgin olive oil in the United States is exempt from prosecution, either civil or criminal.

There are four categories of virgin oil: extra virgin, virgin, ordinary virgin and virgin lamp oil.

Extra virgin oil

The official Italian standard for extra virgin oil is that its taste is excellent and has no defects, and that the oil has an acid content of less than 1%. The lower the acid content, the better the taste. Extra virgin oil is the Cadillac of the olive industry.

Virgin oil is not required to meet as high a standard for taste, but still has a positive taste profile, and can have an acid content of up to 2%.

Ordinary virgin oil

Never heard of this? There is a reason why – either its taste is considered inferior or its acid content is greater than 2%. These are the Chevies of the olive industry. Usually, this oil undergoes further processing, which is called refining, to remove the excess acid and make it more palatable, and the resulting product should not be called virgin oil, but should be sold as “refined olive oil” or “olive oil” missing the adjective “virgin.” This is the type of olive oil that is used in canned sardines packed in olive oil.

Technically, if the oil is exclusively refined olive oil it may not be sold as “olive oil,” but if it is a blend of “refined olive oil” and “ordinary virgin” oil it can be called “olive oil.”

Virgin lamp oil

The most inferior category of cold press or virgin oil is called virgin lamp oil, or sometimes by its Italian name – lampante. This is oil whose taste is considered inedible, and therefore will probably not be used for food, but more likely for kindling or other non-food use. This raises a very interesting observation, since the Torah was more concerned that the oil used for kindling in the Menorah in the Mishkan should be only of the highest quality and was less concerned about the quality of oil used to produce the korbanos mincha, the meal offerings. This curiosity is not lost on the Midrash:

In the custom of the world, if someone has bad oil, he kindles it, and his good oil he cooks with. In the Ohel Moed and the Mikdash, one did not do this. Only the purest oil went for lighting, and the second quality went for the menachos (Midrash Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 6).

Olive oil for kindling

Olive oil for kindling is usually refined from inferior oil not considered acceptable for human consumption. Is there any halachic problem with use of this oil for kindling Chanukah lights?

The earliest authority that I found who discusses this issue is the Rashba, in his Toras Habayis (Bayis IV, Shaar I, page 28), the work he wrote, as the title suggests, as a handbook for proper household mitzvah observance. In his discussion about kashrus, he mentions the case where someone discovered a mouse in the oil he had intended to use for food, and whether this oil can now be donated to illuminate a shul. The Rashba compares this to the Talmudic discussion that results from the prophet Malachi’s (1:8) derisive rebuke: “And when they offer a blind animal as an offering, have they perpetrated no evil? And when they offer a lame or sick animal, is this not evil? And if they offered it to their idol, would he accept it or view it favorably?” We see from this verse that it is unacceptable to offer an inferior item in the Beis Hamikdash. The Gemara then derives from this verse that one may not use inferior items for Kiddush or to perform other mitzvos. One should use only quality items for serving Hashem, not items for which one has no other use. The Pri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 154:19) specifically includes the oil one uses for Ner Chanukah under this prohibition.

Regarding  our mouse in the cooking oil, the Rashba concludes that if the oil is halachically not kosher, one may not use it to illuminate the shul, similar to the prohibition against use of a sick or otherwise inferior animal as a korban. However, if the oil is halachically permitted to eat, such as when the rodent parts can be filtered out, one may kindle this oil in shul. The rationale appears to be that one is not attempting to pawn off inferior items by using them for a sacred purpose, which is the despicable activity that Malachi decried. When one could use the item for oneself, but chose not to, it is appropriate to use it for a mitzvah.

Other authorities prohibit lighting shul lamps with this contaminated oil, even when it is halachically kosher and one could eat it (Magen Avraham 154:19, quoting several earlier authorities). These authorities contend that serving Hashem with an item that one personally considers disgusting is prohibited.

Based on the above discussion, I have heard people say that one may not use oil that one cannot or would not eat, either because of kashrus concerns or because of health concerns, for Chanukah lights. It is very common to find olive oil sold as “not for human consumption,” or “for kindling only,” either because the solvents or other chemicals used to extract or refine the oil were not food grade, or because this oil was produced from inferior olives or in such a way that the oil tastes bitter, or the oil was prepared in a less than sanitary environment. Are we indeed required to purchase the far more expensive food-grade olive oil for the menorah?

One may argue that, in this case, the oil does not have a disgusting appearance, as opposed to Malachi’s lame and blind animals. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 154:12) implies that it is a concern only if the oil appears to be disgusting: If you found a mouse in the oil meant for synagogue use, if it is disgusting, one may not kindle it in the synagogue.

In addition, Malachi’s lame and blind animals would be unable to be worked and therefore may have no suitable use other than being offered as korbanos ­­-– and perhaps this is exactly the prophet’s concern.

Several authorities permitted kindling Chanukah lights with oil that is too bitter for consumption (Ben Ish Chai, Vayeisheiv 12; Kaf Hachayim 673:11). It seems to this author that our case is comparable to their ruling, and that it is permitted to purchase lamp oil for one’s menorah.

Conclusion

Whereas Shabbos and most of our holidays include festivities that we celebrate with the use of wine, on Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle that happened with the olive oil in the Beis Hamikdash. Many of our customs, including the consumption of doughnuts and latkes, are to remind us of the miracle of the oil.

It is interesting to note the many comparisons made between olives and grapes, and this also has halachic overtones. Both vineyards and olive groves are called kerem in Tanach and Mishnaic Hebrew (see Berachos 35a). Wine and olive oil are the only fruit products used in korbanos on the mizbeiach. They are the only liquids whose brocha is not shehakol, but is ha’eitz in the instance of olive oil, and hagefen for wine or grape juice. They both have the halachic distinctiveness of being the only fruit with a Torah requirement of separating terumos and maasros; and they are the only fruits that may be squeezed for their product when they have terumah sanctity.

On the other hand, there is an interesting technical difference between grapes and olives, one with major hashkafic ramifications. Whereas it requires much tending to coax the vine to produce quality wine grapes, the olive tree requires relatively little attention to produce quality olive oil. Once one has chosen the proper site for planting the trees, the main efforts required to produce quality oil are to harvest the olives exactly when they are ready and to crush them immediately without damaging them. Any delay reduces significantly the quality of the oil extracted. This is also reflected in the halacha, which rules that one may harvest and process olives on Chol Hamoed, when work is usually prohibited, because delaying causes major loss (Mishnah, Moed Katan 11b).

The root of the word Chanukah is the same as that of chinuch; both instances include the concept of training or the beginning of performing mitzvos. Thus, the true, correct translation of chinuch is not education, but training.  Similar to the grape, some children require constant involvement in their education. If you take your eyes off their chinuch for a moment, they will be in trouble. However, when you attend to them carefully and constantly, they’ll produce high quality wine. Other children resemble the olive. They require less overseeing. Once they are planted correctly, they will do fine if left to grow on their own. This is indeed a manifestation of the other aspect of chinuch/Chanukah. As parents and teachers, it is our task to understand our children and apply the correct approach to maximize the potential of each child. As Mishlei (Proverbs) tells us, chanoch lanaar al pi darko, each child needs to be trained according to his own specific requirements.

May the lights of Chanukah symbolize for us the dedication of our ancestors to guiding their children and students in the way of Torah, and serve as a beacon for us to continue in that mission.

 

Does Olive Oil Require a Hechsher?

olive oilQuestion #1: Were we mistaken?

“Where I grew up, we routinely used olive oil in the kitchen without any hechsher. Was there any halachic basis for this practice?”

Question #2: Is it the real thing?

“I read recently that adulteration of olive oil is very common. How can I use this oil?”

Question #3: Which should I choose?

“Which is preferred? Using vegetable oil from a factory that produces only vegetable oils, or from a factory that is being koshered prior to every production of kosher oil?”

Answer:

A discussion of whether one may consume olive oil or vegetable oils without a proper hechsher allows us to touch on several different kashrus issues, both theoretical and practical. Let us begin with the mitzvah of orlah. The Torah (Vayikra 19:23) prohibits eating or benefiting from fruit grown on a tree during its first three years. Such fruit is called orlah. The Torah’s prohibition applies whether the tree was planted by a Jew or a gentile, and whether it grew in Eretz Yisroel or in chutz la’aretz. However, many leniencies apply to the fruits that grow in chutz la’aretz that do not apply to those growing in Eretz Yisroel (Mishnah Orlah 3:9).

Although most agricultural mitzvos of the Torah apply only in Eretz Yisroel, a special halachah lemoshe misinai¸ a law taught to Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai without any source in the written Torah, teaches that the mitzvah of orlah applies also in chutz la’aretz (Kiddushin 39a). However, this particular halachah lemoshe misinai came with an intriguing leniency. In a case of doubt whether or not something is prohibited according to Torah law, the usual rule requires that we be stringent and prohibit the item (Avodah Zarah 7a). As a result, in Eretz Yisroel, one may not purchase a fruit without first determining whether there is a significant possibility that the fruit is orlah. In the case of orlah from chutz la’aretz, the halachah lemoshe misinai teaches that the fruit is prohibited only if one knows for certain that it is orlah. Any other fruit grown in chutz la’aretz is not included in the prohibition of orlah.

Terumos, maasros and shmittah

Oil of olives grown in Eretz Yisroel involves other kashrus concerns, including the various laws germane to shevi’is (shmittah) and the requirement to separate terumos and maasros. Technically, terumos and maasros do not require kashrus supervision, since the consumer can always purchase the item un-tithed and then separate terumos and maasros himself. However, a consumer who prefers that someone else separate terumos and maasros must purchase fruit and vegetables only with a hechsher that can be assumed to have attended to this satisfactorily.

Shevi’is may also be a concern. (Please note that one does find shmittah wine in the marketplace. These products involve many halachic questions that need to be resolved. Prior to using them, and preferably before purchasing them, be careful to speak to a rav for direction as to what to do.)

Refined olive oil

When discussing olive oil, we should realize that edible olive oil can be divided into two categories: virgin, or cold-pressed oil, and refined oil. One concern about the kashrus of refined olive oil is the possibility that it was produced on equipment that had been used to refine oils made from animal fat. Edible-oil refineries often process products made from beef tallow, lard or non-kosher fish on the same equipment that they refine vegetable oil products, which could include olive oil. This creates a kashrus problem for two different reasons. First, the manufacturer has no incentive to clean the equipment between productions of animal and vegetable fat products, and therefore a run of a non-kosher product usually leaves a considerable amount of fat on the equipment that subsequently becomes mixed into whatever is run next. Second, since the refining of these products is done at high temperatures, the otherwise kosher oil absorbs non-kosher flavor.

Historical precedent

Hundreds of years ago, halachic questions fairly similar to our modern kashrus issues had already been raised. Before discussing some of these cases, we need an introduction to a different halachic issue, called nosein taam lifgam, meaning that an ingredient detracts from the taste of the finished product. There is a dispute among tanna’im (Avodah Zarah 67b) whether a non-kosher food is prohibited when it becomes dissolved into a kosher product to which it gives an unpleasant taste. The conclusion is that nosein taam lifgam is permitted, even when your taste buds sense the presence of the non-kosher food. The Mishnah’s (Avodah Zarah 65b) example is non-kosher wine that fell into dried figs, which remain kosher because the wine detracts from the taste of the figs.

Sixteenth century olive oil

With this added piece of information, we can now examine what I find to be a fascinating halachic discussion. In the sixteenth century, a talmid chacham named Aharon ben Gershom sent the Rema (Shu”t Harema #53, 54) the following inquiry:

A ger tzedek, whose father was in the business of importing olive oil to Poland from Italy, told me that shipping the oil in wooden casks (apparently the most common way of shipping oil in that era) presents a problem, because of the porous nature of wood. The ger told me that, to avoid precious oil from seeping into or through the barrels, the insides of the barrels are coated with lard, which seals the barrel so that the olive oil does not leak out.

Thus, all olive oil available in Poland, where the Rema lived, would present a kashrus problem.

The Rema responds

However, the Rema ruled that one may purchase the barreled olive oil. He contended that even if the barrels are indeed sealed with lard, the olive oil inside remains permitted. The Rema rallied several proofs to this conclusion. The first is based on the historical precedent of a similar case, in which wooden barrels used to store beer were first sealed with lard to prevent seepage. An earlier authority, the Mordechai (Avodah Zarah #819), had ruled that one may purchase beer from gentiles, even if the barrels were sealed with lard, because even if taste of the lard leaks into the beer, the taste is nosein taam lifgam, and therefore permitted.

The Rema further notes another source that indicates that seepage of this nature into oil will be considered nosein taam lifgam. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 68b) mentions a case where a rat fell into edible oil, and it rules that the product is permitted because oil must be kept pleasant smelling, and the flavor that dead rats add to oil is unpleasant. To quote the Rambam (Hilchos Ma’achalos Asuros 15:31): “If a rat fell into beer or vinegar, we measure to see if the kosher liquid is sixty times the volume of the rat because of concern that it provides a good taste to the beer or vinegar. However, if it fell into wine, oil or honey, the product is permitted, even if one can taste the rat in the product, because it provides them with a taam pagum. These three foods require that they be very tasty, and this causes them to spoil and ruin their taste.”

Another proof cited by the Rema to sustain his conclusion is the statement of the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 38b) that cooked oil may be purchased from a non-Jew, without any kashrus concerns. In this passage, the Gemara concludes that though the oil was cooked in a non-kosher pot, the result is nosein taam lifgam and therefore permitted.

Furthermore, the Rema contended that the amount of olive oil in the barrel must surely be more than sixty times the volume of the lard, which would mean that the lard has become bateil, nullified, in the oil. He noted that since Jews have always consumed the barreled olive oil and never tasted any other substance in the oil, the lard is bateil.

Religious gentiles

The Rema provides an additional proof that the lard is bateil.  It is because of the fact that the gentiles used the barreled olive oil during their Lent season, when they were careful not to eat any meat or meat fat. Were they to notice any animal fat taste in the olive oil, they would certainly not use it. The Rema quotes precedent for this unusual reason from a responsum of the Rashba (1:67), in which the Rashba was asked the following:

“A Jew supervised the manufacture of cheese owned by a gentile, so that it should be kosher, and then placed his seal on it. Subsequently, the Jew left the cheese on the premises of the gentile. Do we need to be concerned that the gentile smeared lard on the cheese?”

To this inquiry, the Rashba answered: “If the cheese is owned by a Jew, there is no basis for halachic concern. …When it is sealed properly, we are concerned only that the gentile might substitute. Nowhere do we find that we are required to be concerned that a gentile would waste his own money to cause a Jew to violate a mitzvah. And even if the cheese is owned by a gentile, we do not need to be concerned that he smeared lard on the cheese, since today they consider this a prohibited food during the days that they do not eat meat, and they punish people for violating this law.”

A disputant

Rav Aharon, who posed the question to the Rema, noted that one early authority, the Issur Vaheter (32:16), expressly stated that animal oil provides a positive taste in vegetable oil. This was his case: “It once happened that someone cooked honey in a pot that had been used to cook meat and was not cleaned afterwards. The honey was then emptied, while still hot, into a dairy pot.” One would think that the both the honey and the dairy pot have now been rendered non-kosher. However, the Issur Vaheter surprises us with the following ruling: “We permitted it, because the meat is nosein taam lifgam into the honey, even though there was actual beef fat in the pot. However, if there had been oil, rather than honey, in the pot, it would have provided a good flavor, and the milchig pot would have become prohibited.” Thus, although the Issur Vaheter acknowledges that meat fat is nosein taam lifgam into honey, it adds a pleasant taste to vegetable oil.

The Rema responded by noting that since the Gemara is not concerned about animal oil mixing into olive oil, the halachah is that it is considered nosein taam lifgam, regardless of what the Issur Vaheter may have held. In order to avoid saying that the Issur Vaheter erred in his analysis, the Rema suggests that the Issur Vaheter drew a distinction between solid vegetable fat, in which case animal oil imparts a positive taste, and liquid vegetable oil, the flavor of which is not enhanced by non-kosher products, including animal fat.

The Shach disputes

Notwithstanding the Rema’s strong stance on the topic, the Shach (Yoreh Deah 103:14) disputes his conclusion, contending that animal oil always imparts a good taste to both solid vegetable fat and liquid vegetable oil. He explains that the Gemara from which the Rema proved his theory is not discussing animal oil at all, but the possibility of contamination with non-kosher wine, which certainly imparts an unpleasant taste to vegetable oil. Thus, in the Shach’s opinion, the position of the Issur Vaheter is correct. Although many authorities agree with the Rema (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 103:4 and Gra ad loc.; Peleisi), the majority of later authorities conclude as does the Shach (Chachmas Odom 54:15; Chavos Daas 103, Chiddushim #13, Biurim #7; Badei Hashulchan 103:49).

The Yad Yehudah (103:25) adds another reason for concern, even according to the Rema. The Gemara was presumably discussing beef tallow or lard that has not been refined in any major way, whereas today, when the beef tallow or lard has been refined to remove their more pronounced flavors, they may now provide a positive taste in vegetable oil, notwithstanding the fact that the original product may have been nosein taam lifgam.

The Chachmas Odom and Yad Yehudah conclude that if one knows that the olive oil was produced on equipment that processed non-kosher fat that day, the oil is not kosher. However, when one does not know that this is the situation, one may assume that the oil is kosher. Thus, the barrels of olive oil in the time of the Rema were indeed kosher, although today’s vegetable oil manufactured on non-kosher equipment might not be, depending on how often the plant produces animal oil, and whether the equipment is cleaned thoroughly in between the two productions.

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “Where I grew up, we routinely used olive oil in the kitchen without any hechsher. Was there any halachic basis for this practice?”

I have been told that the rabbonim in both Tunisia and Morocco allow consumption of any oil produced there, whether olive or vegetable oil, whether refined or not. They say that no animal or fish oil is available in these countries. Although the equipment used for olive oil can also be used for grape seed oil, which might also be halachically problematic, I believe that these two countries do not produce any grape seed oil, either.

Hot off the press

However, one should avoid relying on these heterim in a country where animal oil products are produced on the same equipment as vegetable oil. As I mentioned above, one should not assume that these companies clean the equipment between runs of animal and vegetable oil, since this equipment is usually very difficult to clean. A proper hechsher at such a factory would require either that the non-kosher equipment be segregated in a way that it cannot contaminate the kosher product, or that the equipment be cleaned and koshered thoroughly prior to making kosher products. Both of these approaches require skilled and properly trained kashrus staff to make sure that they are done properly.

If the refinery processes only vegetable oil products, then the potential kashrus risks are easier to control.

Heimishe kashrus

A talmid of mine, now a recognized and respected rav where he lives, reported to me that his community sports two kashrus agencies, one that is used by the “frummer” population, and another that is meant for the general population. Notwithstanding this sociological distinction, he has discovered that, in a few instances, the standard of the general kashrus organization is, indeed, higher. For example, the “frummerkashrus organization approves vegetable oil and products only from a privately run, frum brand. This hechsher arranges for a mashgiach to oversee the cleaning and koshering of an otherwise treif facility that produces animal and vegetable oil goods on the same equipment. On the other hand, the “regular” kashrus organization manufactures its goods in a facility that produces only kosher vegetable oils. He asked me which is better to use. Our readers understand why I advised him to use products from a factory that is all kosher, rather than one that was cleaned after non-kosher manufacture.

We now have the answer to another of our original questions: “Which is preferred? Using vegetable oil from a factory that produces only vegetable oils, or from a factory that is being koshered prior to every production of kosher oil?”

Virgin oil

When discussing olive oil, we should realize that edible olive oil can be divided into two categories, virgin or cold-pressed oil and refined oil. Refined olive oil may involve all the concerns I mentioned above. “Virgin oil” means that the oil is separated from the olives without any added heat. Although the friction of the grinding of the olives into oil does create some heat, the mashgichim to whom I have spoken, who check the temperature of production, have told me that the olives get warm but not hot. Thus, there should be no cross-contamination of any non-kosher product into the virgin olive oil.

Although enzymes are sometimes added to assist in removing more oil from the olives during the pressing, these enzymes would not present any kashrus concerns to the finished product.

That which we call an olive…

However, there is concern about adulteration, since virgin olive oil commands a high price in the marketplace, and unscrupulous manufacturers have been caught adulterating it with less expensive oils. Both in Europe and in the United States there have been many scandals and prosecutions involving those who have doctored oil and sold it as virgin or refined olive oil.

Does this mean that the kashrus of virgin olive oil must be tightly monitored? When I researched this question, I received different answers from kashrus organizations. Some contended that although adulteration of virgin olive oil is not uncommon, there are no known instances of introduction of non-kosher ingredients. Therefore, they consider it sufficient for the kashrus agency to visit the factory producing the oil on a periodic basis. Other hechsherim are more concerned, and allow the product to be made under their supervision only when a mashgiach visits the facility frequently during the production.

Remember that these conclusions are only about virgin oil produced in chutz la’aretz, but olive oil produced in Eretz Yisroel may have additional kashrus concerns, particularly about orlah, and therefore requires a good hechsher.

Conclusion:

We should note the many comparisons made between olives and grapes, and this also has halachic overtones. In both instances, they are the only liquids whose brocha is not shehakol, but is ha’eitz, in the instance of olive oil, and hagefen for wine or grape juice. Wine and olive oil are the only fruit products used in korbanos on the mizbeiach. Both vineyards and olive farms are called kerem in Tanach and Mishnaic Hebrew (see Brachos 35a). Let us appreciate the uniqueness of olive oil, while we thank Hashem for the Chanukah miracles.