This was originally printed in the Jewish Journal.
Chanukah is a holiday where we consume lots of oil-drenched foods. But beyond these dishes, what is the connection between oil? Actually, a lot, and it has to do with our agricultural system.
We till the same soils through which God breathed Adam into existence. Our water is a finite source that operates in cycles; we drink much of the water that was consumed by the Maccabees. Protecting these precious soils and water sources is integral to our stewardship of our agricultural lands and our existence.
In the 12,000 years of agriculture, the most significant changes have occurred in the past century. We live in an era of agricultural assimilation, which pushes for uniformity in growing practices and types of crops grown. And, at the heart of much of these “big ag” forces is “big oil.” Unlike the sacred olive oil used at Chanukah, there’s nothing sacred about fossil fuels in agriculture.
The Union of Concerned Scientists describes the situation in the US as, “[F]arms are often very large, highly specialized, and run like factories with large inputs of fossil fuels, pesticides and other chemicals, and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil.”. The United Nations Environment Programme calculated that “2,000 litres per year in oil equivalents are required to supply food for each American.”
This system is not sustainable now, or for future generations. The impacts of industrial agriculture are not tallied into the cost of a loaf of bread or a pound of potatoes that we buy at the market. But, we all pay the price of the social, economic and ecological impacts through polluted drinking water, the loss of family farms, the degradation of nutrient-rich soil, the disappearance of diversity in seeds and crops, increased health risks and greenhouse gas emissions.
The injustices that happen in agriculture are an opportunity for Jews to bring the light of Torah to the darkness that overshadows millions of acres of farm fields in America. Like the many faces of Torah, growing food is about diversity, not uniformity in practices.
As chef and author Dan Barber writes in “The Third Plate,” we need to “grow nature. … More nature means less control.” We need to step back from industrial farming to support small, local, organic farmers. Such farmers grow food in harmony with their land, which means less water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, poisoning of farm workers and consumers, diversity in crops and seeds, healthier soil and tastier foods.
We can each do our part through avodah b’gashmiut, the Chasidic idea of the worship of God through the material world. As Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer writes in “Hasidism as Mysticism,” “It is incumbent upon man to worship God with all his natural impulses by transforming them into good … [in] the concrete, material world.” Every day, through mitzvot (such as lighting Chanukah candles), Jews are vessels to illuminate the dark places in the world with Torah.
Ordinary practices of what we eat at our tables and buy at markets can be mitzvot that spread the light of Torah in the world. By choosing to support local farmers that grow food in sync with their environment, we are helping to reverse the degradation inflicted on farm from big ag and to renew soil and water for future generations. This is about “praying with our forks” every time we eat. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commented, “never believe that a handful of dedicated people can’t change the world. Inspired by faith, they can. The Maccabees did then. So can we today.”
This Chanukah, we can celebrate the spiritual purity of olive oil used for the holiday while ridding ourselves of the big oil of industrial, assimilated agriculture.
A Chanukah seder that Rabbi Dov Gartenberg shared at a LimmudLA gathering several years ago inspires the recipe I created.
Each of the eight olive oils is infused with different ingredients that move from dark to light each night. Try a new one each night and discuss eight ways you will bring light throughout the year to our food system.
Night 1: schug or chili flakes
Night 2: sage
Night 3: basil
Night 4: rosemary
Night 5: mandarin
Night 6: lemon
Night 7: lime
Night 8: lavender
Infused Olive Oils
Prepare these as far in advance of Chanukah as possible to allow the oils to absorb the flavors and scents of the added ingredients.
¼ tsp schug or chili flakes
5-7 sage leaves
5-7 basil leaves (I used a mixture of different basils)
1 small sprig of rosemary
¼ lemon (I used a Meyer lemon)
¼ lime (I used a sweet lime)
1 small sprig of lavender (with flowers is fine)
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Rinse all herbs and fruits. Peel mandarin orange. Slice mandarin orange, lemon and lime.
Pour approximately 1/4 cup olive oil into each of eight covered jars. Add a single herb or fruit to each jar of oil. Let steep for as many days as possible before Chanukah. Store in a cool, dark place.
Makes about 2 cups of flavored olive oils.