‘If someone makes a vow while they are in Israel prohibiting themselves from oil, then they are permitted to have sesame oil but prohibited to have olive oil, whereas if someone makes a vow while they are in Babylon prohibiting themselves from oil, then they are prohibited to have sesame oil and permitted to have olive oil.’
This statement, taken from the Gemara in today’s daf (Nedarim 53a), clearly requires an explanation, because why should one’s location where the vow is made make a difference in what is prohibited?
The answer to this question as offered by the Ritva is that vows are determined by the language used in the place where the vow is made, and because olive oil is ubiquitous in Israel and is the oil most often used, then it is presumed when someone makes a vow about ‘oil’ in Israel then olive oil is included in the vow. Similarly, because sesame is ubiquitous in Babylon and is the oil most often used, then it is presumed that when someone makes a vow about ‘oil’ in Babylon, then sesame oil is included in the vow.
Clearly this Gemara is timely as we will be lighting the Chanukah lights tomorrow night, and it is noteworthy that the Gemara elsewhere (Shabbat 23a) draws a comparison between olive oil and sesame oil in terms of the lighting of the Chanukiah:
‘Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: All the oils are suitable for the Chanukah lamp, and olive oil is the most preferable to use. Abaye said: At first, my Master, Rabba, would seek sesame oil, as he said: “The light of sesame oil lasts longer (מְשִׁיךְ נְהוֹרֵיהּ טְפֵי)”. Once he heard that statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, he sought olive oil because he said: “Its light is clearer (צְלִיל נְהוֹרֵיהּ טְפֵי)”’.
Considering this teaching in light of the discussion in Nedarim 53a, I think that not only is a contrast being drawn between quantity of light (from sesame oil) and quality of light (from olive oil), but also between Babylon and Israel.
Admittedly as the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 673:1) rules, all oils are permitted to be used for the Chanukiah. Still, as the Rema writes while echoing the words of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, ‘the use of olive oil is a preferred way to fulfil the mitzvah’. What this means is that by using olive oil, not only does one fulfil the mitzvah more authentically in terms of mirroring what occurred in the Temple (as argued by the Maharal), but additionally, one creates a deeper connection to Israel while, at the same time, making the choice of quality of light (צְלִיל נְהוֹרֵיהּ טְפֵי) over quantity of light (מְשִׁיךְ נְהוֹרֵיהּ טְפֵי).
Ultimately, there are many ways to light the Chanukah lights. But ever since moving to Israel I’ve made the choice to use olive oil. And having now explained today’s daf, I feel that I understand, just a little more, why doing so is so meaningful to me.