Why Couldn’t the Kohanim Burn Olive or Grape Wood on the Altar

Thoughts on Tamid Chapter 2 Mishnah 3

In our study of Tamid Chapter 2 Mishnah 3, we learned that all forms of wood were permissible to burn on the altar except for olive wood and grape vines. I noted two possible reasons for these exceptions suggested by the Bartenura:

  1. Because of yishuv eretz yisrael – these two types of trees were too important for the settling of the land to cut down for kindling
  2. Because they burn down too quickly (a quick internet check reveals that this is not accurate)

Jacob Licht of Washington sent me a fascinating suggestion. He writes:

I’ve been thinking about this lately regarding ‘tiroshcha v’yizharecha‘ in the Shema. Olives and grapes are very important since they represent human perfection of nature (v’kivshuha?). Olives are never consumed straight from the tree and are always brined or pressed into oil. Similarly, wine is an elevation, or perfection of grapes. So, when the Shema says tiroshcha v’yitzharecha instead of gafnecha v’zeitecha, it’s aiming high and encouraging a uniquely human reward for mitzvah observance. Animals don’t consume brined olives, olive oil or wine, and these represent human’s fulfillment of G-d’s brachot to us. Also, we aren’t promised the tirosh and yitzhar, rather the rain to grow the crops which we then transform into elevated foods.

Thus, olive and grape wood might be prohibited because they represent our obligation to elevate that which good gives us, and must not be used simply as fuel for the fire on the altar. It’s useful to note that olive oil was used in the Korban Minchah (sometimes even offered alone), and wine was offered on the altar as well!

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