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Olive Oil and the Priestly Garments
by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

>>> Listen to Audio Lecture here (length: 28:31min) 

Both the olive oil for the menorah and the priestly garments that open this week’s Torah portion have an essential connection to the number eight. What is the inner meaning of this juxtaposition of concepts? In this week's meditation, Rabbi Ginsburgh describes how we can harness the power of olive oil and transform its properties into the atoning energy of the eight priestly garments, thereby illuminating the world.

Eight Priestly Garments Correspond to the Eight Components of the Cherubim

The main subject of this week's Torah portion is the priestly garments worn by the priests in their service in the holy Temple in Jerusalem and in the Tabernacle. An ordinary priest wore four priestly garments, while the High Priest wore eight priestly garments. These eight garments correspond to the eight components of the ultimate image of the Temple, the cherubim.

Each cherub had four components:

  • A Face

  • A body

  • Right wing

  • Left wing

Together, the two cherubim had eight components.

Likewise, the eight priestly garments also divide into four and four:

  1. The four white garments of the ordinary priests--These four garments correspond to one cherub and the four letters (yud, kei, vav, kei) of God's Essential Name, Havayah . They represent a relatively male dimension.

  2. The four golden garments of the High Priest--These four garments are worn together with the four white garments of the ordinary priests. They correspond to the two cherubim united, and the four letters (alef, dalet, nun, yud) of God's Name, Adnut. They represent a relatively female dimension.


The Atoning Power of the Eight Priestly Garments

Each of the eight priestly garments had a special power to atone for a particular sin of Israel:

Garment Name of Garment Name in Hebrew Atoning Power

Four white garments of ordinary priests

hat mitznefet haughtiness
wide belt (from waist to heart) avnet lust
shirt kutonet (same word as Joseph's shirt which brothers used as evidence of "murder.") murder
pants michnasayim adultery
Four golden garments of the High Priest golden plate on forehead tzitz Brazenness
robe me'il slander and evil speech
breastplate chosehen mishpat corrupt judgment
gown efod idolatry


Eight Garments and Essentially Eight Oil

This week's Torah portion actually begins with God commanding Moses to prepare pure olive oil to be used in the menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum that was lit daily in the Holy Temple), and then proceeds to describe the priestly garments. This juxtaposition points to a close connection between the olive oil and the eight garments.

The Hebrew word for "oil" is shemen, which is the root of the Hebrew for "eight," shmoneh. Let us first explore the essential connection between oil and the number eight.

The number seven represents nature. Eight is supernatural. It represents ein sof, "infinity."

The numerical value of God's Essential Name, Havayah, is 26. 26 reduces to 8 (2 plus 6). Thus, eight is the one number essence of Havayah, the Name that refers to miracles.

The word shemen also means "fat." If the perfection of nature is seven, the oil, fat, is more than the natural state of the human being. There were great rabbis and tzaddikim who became physically fat just from the great Divine pleasure of serving God and experiencing the supernatural revelation of God in the world. (This can be called holy fatness).

The first verse of our Torah portion (Exodus 27:20) has 15 words.

Ve'ata te'tzveh et bnei Yisrael ve'yikchu ei'lecha shemen zayit zach katit lama'or la'alot ner tamid 

"And you shall command the children of Israel and they shall take to you pure olive oil, ground, to become a light, to raise an eternal light"

The 8th word, both from the beginning and the end of the verse is the word shemen, "oil":

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
"Ve'ata te'tzveh et bnei Yisrael ve'yikchu ei'lecha


7 6 5 4 3 2 1
zayit zach katit lama'or la'alot ner tamid"

The phrase from the above verse, "shemen zayit zach," pure olive oil, also revolves around eight.

There are 8 letters in the phrase shemen zayit zach (spelled in Hebrew: shin-mem-nun, zayin-yud-tav, zayin-kaf),which divide into 3, 3 and 2. When 8 is divided in this way, the product of its components (3 times 3 times 2 = 18) is maximal. This is the optimal way to divide a number.

When each letter of the words shemen and zayit are spelled out in full, we again receive two sets of eight letters that divide into 3, 3 and 2:

Shemen is spelled: shin-mem-nun
Spelled out in full: shin-yud-nun, mem-mem, nun-vav-nun.

Zayit is spelled: zayin-yud-tav 
Spelled out in full: zayin-yud-nun, yud-vav-dalet, tav-vav.

The sages (Midrash) begin the explanation of this week's Torah portion with the verse from Jeremiah 11:16 that defines the properties of the olive and explains why the Jewish people are likened to olive oil. This phrase also has 8 words that divide into 2, 3 and 3:

"Zayit ra'anan (2), yafeh peri to'ar (3), karah Hashem shim'cha (3)--Peaceful olive tree, whose fruit is of beautiful appearance, has God called your name."


Fat is a Covering

In Deuteronomy 32:15 Israel is criticized for having become "fat, thick and covered." Our sages say that these three adjectives correspond to the three generations preceding the revelation of the Mashiach.

From the Ba'al Shem Tov we learn that everything has two manifestations. For every negative interpretation, there is also a positive interpretation. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained further that the three positive interpretations of the above adjectives is as follows:

  1. Fat--Indulging in the pleasure of the mysteries of the Torah

  2. Thick--Indulging in good deeds

  3. Covered--Revelation to the world of the secrets that were previously covered. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, this adjective refers specifically to the final generation before the revelation of the Mashiach.

From the above adjectives we learn that fat is a covering--a garment.


The Jewish People Resemble Olive Oil

Our Sages say that the five descriptions of olive oil in the first verse of this Torah portion ("Shemen zayit zach katit lama'or--Pure olive oil, ground to become a light") also describe the Jewish people:

Description Property of Oil Corresponding Property of Jewish People
1 Shemen
Rises to top and coats surface--cream When the Jewish people delve into the secrets of the Torah (oil) they produce coatings (garments).
2 Zayit
(Olive fruit and tree)
Tree does not shed leaves Eternity of Jewish people
3 Zach
Oil does not mix with other substances Jewish people will not totally assimilate
These first three descriptions correspond to the eight garments of the High Priest. In particular, the priestly class, and its restrictions against assimilating with other Jews,  gives power to all the Jewish people not to assimilate.
4 Katit
The olive must be ground in order to extract the oil. Sometimes, the Jewish people must endure the hardships of exile in order to truly return to God.

(To become a light)

It is the grinding that produces the oil which lights the lamps

From the grinding of the return to God, the Jewish people becomes the source of light to illuminate the entire world, including those who initially ground them.


The Connection

Eight is the secret of  the connection of pure olive oil to the priestly garments. When we meditate on the olive oil and connect to its energy, we create the eight garments of the High Priest, who radiate their energy to the Jewish people so that they may illuminate the world.



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