One might think that clear oil of beaten olives is unfit for meal offerings since the verse states, A tenth of fine flour, thoroughly mixed with beaten oil (Exodus 29:40). If so, what does the verse mean by, for lighting (Exodus 27:20)? Rather, [clear, beaten oil is required only for the menorah] in order to save money. Why save money? R. Elazar says, “Torah conserved the money of the Jewish people.”
Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives [for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly] (Leviticus 24:2). R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says, “’To you’—and not for My benefit [because] I do not need its light.” [Concerning] the Table of Showbread in the north and the Menorah in the south [of the Sanctuary], R. Zerika says R. Elazar says, “[God said:] ‘I do not require [the Table] for eating, nor do I require [the menorah] for its light.’” [Concerning the Temple:] He made for the House windows narrow and broad (1 Kings 6:4). It was taught [in a baraita]: [God said:] “Narrow within and broad without [because] I do not require their illumination.’
The Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle), and the Mikdash (Jerusalem Temple) after it, were conceived as the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where God and Israel’s relationship was renewed daily and amplified through the sacrifices offered on the altar. The altar was not the only striking feature of the Mishkan (and Mikdash). Another was the Menorah. The first and longest-standing symbol of the Jewish people, the seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Mishkan is a graphic, symbolic depiction of creation itself: six days of creation held together by the central trunk, Shabbat. God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20). The kohanim (priests) were assigned the daily duties of cleaning the Menorah, replacing its wicks, and refilling its cups with oil so that it would burn eternally, symbolizing the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. The Table of Showbread (Exodus chapter 25) displayed twelve loaves of bread on its golden shelves, representing God’s commitment to ensuring Israel’s physical sustenance, their most basic need. Each shabbat, the kohanim replaced the loaves with twelve fresh ones.
Mishnah Menachot 8:3, and the Gemara that follows (starting on 85b), engages in a detailed description concerning the production of olive oil via a succession of pressings (beatings). Each subsequent pressing produces a lesser quality oil. Only the finest oil from the first press—“clear oil of beaten olives”—is suitable for lighting the Menorah (Exodus 27:20). Two chapters later, the Torah says that meal offerings are made with one-tenth measure of choice flour and a quarter hin of merely “beaten oil.” Why is the finest quality oil used to light the Menorah not also required for the meal offering? After all, God uses the Menorah only for illumination, but “consumes” the meal offering. While God’s “seeing” and “eating” are metaphorical, it makes sense that the oil we consume should be as pure, or purer than, the oil used to illuminate the dark.
The Gemara explains that God does not require the most expensive oil for the meal offering. The nation, which pays for the costs of the Mishkan through tithing, thus saves money. God wants the nation to use its funds properly and frugally and toward that end, does not require the most expensive olive oil for the meal offering.
Why, then, is the finest type of oil required for the Menorah? As R. Shmuel bar Nachmani explains, Torah says “to (or: for) you” to convey that God does not require the illumination provided by the Menorah—it is symbol for Israel, so the people will remember that God is always with them. R. Zerika points out that much the same can be said of the Table of Showbread, as evidenced by its placement at the opposite end of the Mishkan. Normally, one would place a lamp next to the table to provide light for eating. However, God, Who does not require this configuration, commanded they be placed far apart so Israel would understand that these symbols exist solely for their sake.
The Gemara provides one more example. The windows in Solomon’s Temple are described as “narrow and broad,” presumably meaning that they had a narrow opening to the outside but a wider opening on the inside (familiar to us from medieval castles and walls) because the narrow opening is easier to protect, and the broader opening inside permits more light to diffuse within. The Gemara reads “narrow and broad,” however, as “narrow within and broad without”—the opposite of standard construction—allowing God to make the statement that God doesn’t require the light.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- If God doesn’t need the Menorah for illumination or the meal offering and bread of the Table for sustenance, why build the Mishkan and carry out these rituals? What does Israel gain by following rituals portray a God Who eats and sees like human beings—if that does not correspond to reality?
- In explaining anthropomorphic references to God, our Sages said that Torah speaks in the language of human beings. Do you find it helpful and engaging, or distracting and confusing, to talk about God in human terms (“seeing,” “eating,” “angry,” etc.
- In explaining why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s (Genesis 4:3-4), it has often been pointed out that Abel brought “the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” while Cain simply brought produce from his fields. This suggests that one should bring only one’s best to God. Yet this passage from the Talmud pointedly says God doesn’t not always want the finest quality. How would you explain this seemingly contradiction?