ol'-iv tre (zayith, a word occurring also in Aramaic, Ethiopic and Arabic; in the last it means "olive oil," and zaitun, "the olive tree"; elaia):
1. The Olive Tree:
The olive tree has all through history been one of the most characteristic, most valued and most useful of trees in Israel. It is only right that it is the first named "king" of the trees (Jdg 9:8,9). When the children of Israel came to the land they acquired olive trees which they planted not (Dt 6:11; compare Josh 24:13). The cultivation of the olive goes back to the earliest times in Canaan. The frequent references in the Bible, the evidences (see 4 below) from archaeology and the important place the product of this tree has held in the economy of the inhabitants of Syria make it highly probable that this land is the actual home of the cultivated olive. The wild olive is indigenous there. The most fruitful trees are the product of bare and rocky ground (compare Dt 32:13) situated preferably at no great distance from the sea. The terraced hills of Israel, where the earth lies never many inches above the limestone rocks, the long rainless summer of unbroken sunshine, and the heavy "clews" of the autumn afford conditions which are extraordinarily favorable to at least the indigenous olive.
The olive, Olea Europaea (Natural Order Oleaceae), is a slow-growing tree, requiring years of patient labor before reaching full fruitfulness. Its growth implies a certain degree of settlement and peace, for a hostile army can in a few days destroy the patient work of two generations. Possibly this may have something to do with its being the emblem of peace. Enemies of a village or of an individual often today carry out revenge by cutting away a ring of bark from the trunks of the olives, thus killing the trees in a few months. The beauty of this tree is referred to in Jer 11:16; Hos 14:6, and its fruitfulness in Ps 128:3. The characteristic olive-green of its foliage, frosted silver below and the twisted and gnarled trunks--often hollow in the center--are some of the most picturesque and constant signs of settled habitations. In some parts of the land large plantations occur: the famous olive grove near Beirut is 5 miles square; there are also fine, ancient trees in great numbers near Bethlehem.
In starting an oliveyard the fellah not infrequently plants young wild olive trees which grow plentifully over many parts of the land, or he may grow from cuttings. When the young trees are 3 years old they are grafted from a choice stock and after another three or four years they may commence to bear fruit, but they take quite a decade more before reaching full fruition. Much attention is, however, required. The soil around the trees must be frequently plowed and broken up; water must be conducted to the roots from the earliest rain, and the soil must be freely enriched with a kind of marl known in Arabic as chuwwarah. If neglected, the older trees soon send up a great many shoots from the roots all around the parent stem (perhaps the idea in Ps 128:3); these must be pruned away, although, should the parent stem decay, some of these may be capable of taking its place. Being, however, from the root, below the original point of grafting, they are of the wild olive type--with smaller, stiffer leaves and prickly stem--and need grafting before they are of use. The olive tree furnishes a wood valuable for many forms of carpentry, and in modern Israel is extensively burnt as fuel.
2. The Fruit:
The olive is in flower about May; it produces clusters of small white flowers, springing from the axils of the leaves, which fall as showers to the ground (Job 15:33). The first olives mature as early as September in some places, but, in the mountain districts, the olive harvest is not till November or even December. Much of the earliest fruit falls to the ground and is left by the owner ungathered until the harvest. The trees are beaten with long sticks (Dt 24:20), the young folks often climbing into the branches to reach the highest fruit, while the women and older girls gather up the fruit from the ground. The immature fruit left after such an ingathering is described graphically in Isa 17:6: "There shall be left therein gleanings, as the shaking (margin "beating") of an olive-tree, two or three berries in the top of the uppermost bough, four or five in the outmost branches of a fruitful tree." Such gleanings belonged to the poor (Dt 24:20), as is the case today. Modern villages in Israel allow the poor of even neighboring villages to glean the olives. The yield of an olive tree is very uncertain; a year of great fruitfulness may be followed by a very scanty crop or by a succession of such.
The olive is an important article of diet in Israel. Some are gathered green and pickled in brine, after slight bruising, and others, the "black" olives, are gathered quite ripe and are either packed in salt or in brine. In both cases the salt modifies the bitter taste. They are eaten with bread.
More important commercially is the oil. This is sometimes extracted in a primitive way by crushing a few berries by hand in the hollow of a stone (compare Ex 27:20), from which a shallow channel runs for the oil. It is an old custom to tread them by foot (Mic 6:15).
3. Olive Oil:
Oil is obtained on a larger scale in one of the many varieties of oil mills. The berries are carried in baskets, by donkeys, to the mill, and they are crushed by heavy weights. A better class of oil can be obtained by collecting the first oil to come off separately, but not much attention is given to this in Israel, and usually the berries are crushed, stones and all, by a circular millstone revolving upright round a central pivot. A plenteous harvest of oil was looked upon as one of God's blessings (Joel 2:24; 3:13). That the "labor of the olive" should fail was one of the trials to faith in Yahweh (Hab 3:17). Olive oil is extensively used as food, morsels of bread being dipped into it in eating; also medicinally (Lk 10:34; Jas 5:14). In ancient times it was greatly used for anointing the person (Ps 23:5; Mt 6:17). In Rome's days of luxury it was a common maxim that a long and pleasant life depended upon two fiuids--"wine within and oil without." In modern times this use of oil for the person is replaced by the employment of soap, which in Israel is made from olive oil. In all ages this oil has been used for illumination (Mt 25:3).
4. Greater Plenty of Olive Trees in Ancient Times:
Comparatively plentiful as olive trees are today in Israel, there is abundant evidence that the cultivation was once much more extensive. "The countless rock-cut oil-presses and wine-presses, both within and without the walls of the city (of Gezer), show that the cultivation of the olive and vine was of much greater importance than it is anywhere in Israel today. .... Excessive taxation has made olive culture unprofitable" ("Gezer Mem," PEF, II, 23). A further evidence of this is seen today in many now deserted sites which are covered with wild olive trees, descendants of large plantations of the cultivated tree which have quite disappeared.
5. Wild Olives:
Many of these spring from the old roots; others are from the fallen drupes. Isolated trees scattered over many parts of the land, especially in Galilee, are sown by the birds. As a rule the wild olive is but a shrub, with small leaves, a stem more or less prickly, and a small, hard drupe with but little or no oil. That a wild olive branch should be grafted into a fruitful tree would be a proceeding useless and contrary to Nature (Rom 11:17,24). On the mention of "branches of wild olive" in Neh 8:15, see OIL TREE.
E. W. G. Masterman