Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Israel Environment & Nature: Olive

OLIVE (Heb. זַיִת), the Olea europaea tree and its fruit. The wild olive grows in the groves of Upper Galilee and Carmel. It is a prickly shrub producing small fruits. There are many varieties of cultivated olives, some being suitable for oil, and some for food as preserved olives. Its foliage is dense and when it becomes old, the fairly tall trunk acquires a unique pattern of twists and protuberances on its bark. There are trees in Israel estimated to be 1,000 years old that still produce fruit. In old age the tree becomes hollow but the trunk continues to grow thicker, at times achieving a circumference of 20 ft. (6 m.). The olive tree blossoms at the beginning of summer and its fruit ripens about the time of the early rains in October. The fruit, which is rich in oil, is first green, but later becomes black. Olive trees have always been the most extensively distributed and the most conspicuous in the landscape of Israel. The olive is numbered among the seven species with which Ereẓ Israel is blessed (Deut. 8:8). The Rab-Shakeh, who besieged Jerusalem, also made use of a similar description for Ereẓ Israel when promising the inhabitants of Jerusalem that he would exile them to a country of like fertility (II Kings 18:32). The bounty of Israel is frequently described by "corn, wine, and oil" (Deut. 7:13, et al.); grain, vines, and olives, which formed the basis of Israel's economy. The olive flourishes throughout the country. Its cultivation dates from early times. When the Israelites conquered the land they found extensive olive plantations (Deut. 6:11). Western Galilee, the territory of Asher, was especially rich in olives (33:24), as it is today. They flourish in mountainous areas, even among the rocks, thus producing "oil out of the flinty rock" (32:13). "The Mount of Olives" (Zech. 14:4) near Jerusalem is Har ha-Mishḥah, "the mount of Oil" of the Mishnah (Par. 3:6). The olive also develops well in the *Shephelah Lowland, where it grows near *sycamores , and David appointed a special overseer over these plantations (I Chron. 27:28).

The olive was the first to be chosen by the trees when they went "to anoint a king over themselves" in Jotham's parable (Judg. 9:8–9). The tree is full of beauty, especially when laden with fruit: "a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit" (Jer. 11:16). It is an evergreen, and the righteous who take refuge in the protection of God are compared to it (Ps. 52:10). The "olive plants" of Psalm 128:3 are the shoots that sprout from its roots and protect the trunk and, if it is cut down, they ensure its continued existence. This is the simile referred to in the words "thy children like olive saplings round about thy table." The wood is very hard and beautifully grained, making it suitable for the manufacture of small articles and ornaments, the hollow trunk of the adult tree, however, rendering it unsuitable for pieces of furniture. The olive cannot therefore be the eẓ shemen from which the doors of the Temple were made (I Kings 6:31).

In spring the olive tree is covered with thousands of small whitish flowers, most of which fall off before the fruit forms (cf. Job 15:33). After the fruit is formed the tree may be attacked by the olive fly, causing the fruit to rot and fall off (Deut. 28:40). The fruits are arranged upon the thin branches in parallel rows like ears of corn (Zech. 4:12). Two such olive branches at the side of the candelabrum symbolize the State of Israel, because "an olive leaf " symbolizes peace (cf. Gen. 8:11). After ripening, the fruit is harvested in two different ways, by beating the branches with sticks or by hand picking. The former way is quicker but many branches fall off and this diminishes successive harvests. This method was used in biblical times, the Bible commanding that the fruit on the fallen branches are to be a gift to the poor (Deut. 24:20). The second method was the more usual in mishnaic times and was termed masik ("harvesting olives"), the fingers being drawn down the branches in a milking motion so that the olives fall into the hand. By this method the "harvested" olives remained whole, whereas the "beaten" olives were bruised by the beating (Ḥal. 3:9). The best species for preserving are called kelofsin (Tosef., Ter. 4:3) or keloska olives (Av. Zar. 2:7). Though there were olives of different varieties and different sizes, the olive was designated as a standard size for many halakhot, and the expression "land of olive trees" was interpreted as "a land whose main standard of measurement is the olive" (Ber. 41b). Rabbinic literature contains innumerable details about the oil, its types and methods of extraction; the Midrash (Ex. R. 36:1) summing it up as follows: "The olive is left to fully ripen while it is yet on the tree after which it is brought down from the tree and beaten,… it is then brought up to the vat and placed in a grinding mill, where it is ground and then tied up with ropes [through which the oil is filtered], and then stones are brought [which press upon the olives] and then at last it yields its oil."

In Israel

Limited Jewish attempts to grow olives date back to the small Jewish settlements established during the First Aliyah. The planting of olive groves on a wider scope began at the Ben Shemen farm in 1905–06, and from then on grew steadily. From the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) there was a decline in the area covered by olives: in 1948–49 there were 137,000 dunams (34,000 acres); in 1959–60, 123,000 dunams; and in 1968–69, 107,000 dunams, of which 82,000 were on non-Jewish farms, especially in Arab villages in the Galilee. The amount of olive produce fluctuated substantially in those years, despite the fact that the area of land under cultivation remained fairly steady. In the most productive year, produce reached a peak of 24,500 tons (1966–67), and in the low years it reached the level of 3,800 tons (1949–50) and 2,800 tons (1954–55). In the peak year of 1966–67, 18,950 tons of olives went for food processing and another 5,550 tons yielded 3,000 tons of olive oil. In the same year the value of the olives produced and processed came to IL 17,998,000. A survey carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture after the Six-Day War (1967–68) revealed 477,600 dunams of land under olive cultivation in Judea and Samaria and 3,000 dunams in the Gaza Strip. Within the borders set by the 1949 Armistice Agreements, the Galilee and the area around Lydda were the main centers of olive cultivation. After the Six-Day War, however, the mountains of Samaria and northern Judea took the lead in olive production within the cease-fire lines.

Since that time a large-scale olive oil industry has been developed in Israel, such that between 1995 and 2002 the consumption rose from 6,000 tons to 14,000 tons of olive oil per year. The increase in olive oil consumption was due to the public's recognition of its medical virtues. This trend led the Ministry of Agriculture to encourage farmers to raise olives for oil instead for eating, and to increase their yields by using advanced irrigation techniques. The majority of olive plantations held by Arab farmers are designated for olive oil, and include 180,000 dunams producing 5,000–6,000 tons of oil a year. Most of these plantations are not irrigated due to water recycling problems in the Arab sector. The main species in these plantations is the Syrian, which yields large quantities of oil and is raised in the Galilee. Jewish farmers hold another 22,000 irrigated dunams designated mainly for eating, yielding 15,000 tons of olives per year and located in central and southern Israel. They raise the Manzileno for eating and the Barnea for oil. Two institutions are responsible for regulating the olive sector in Israel: the Fruit Council is responsible for olives for eating, while the Olive Board is responsible for the development of the farming, production, and marketing of olive oil and the branding of the various oils.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.