“Israel is called a luxuriant olive tree that enlightens all.” (Exodus Rabbah, 46).

English Name: Olive
Hebrew Name: Zayit
Scientific name: Olea europaea
Family name: Oleacaceae (Olive family)

Mentions of the Olive Tree in the Traditional Sources

Ancient olive tree in the Blue Valley, near Tzfat. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

The olive tree is given in the sources as one of the seven species prevalent in Israel: “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:8).

The olive tree is mentioned many times in the Bible, associated with blessings, fertility and health. Over the course of time, it acquired the connotation of rootedness and dwelling on the land, which is why an olive branch appears in the emblem of the state, and in the emblems of Israeli army corps. An olive branch also symbolizes peace, because of the biblical account that it was carried by a dove to Noah’s ark after the Flood. Spiritual purity is an attribute of olive oil, and the high priest, the Temple utensils and the kings were anointed with olive oil for a coronation.

Rabbi Joshua Ben Levy taught, “Why is Israel said to be like the olive tree? To tell you that even as the leaves of an olive tree fall neither during the summer nor during the rainy season, so Israel will never cease to be, not in this world nor in the hereafter.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Menahot, 53B.) And in the same tractate it is written, “Why is Israel comparable to the olive? Because just as the olive yields its oil only with hard pressure, so Israel does not return to righteousness except through suffering.” (ibid, 23). And the midrash says, “Israel is called a luxuriant olive tree that enlightens all” (Exodus Rabbah, 46).

Botanical Description

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

The evergreen olive bush is relatively low – 2 to 6 meters high. Its trunk is twisted and gnarled, and its most prominent features are the thickness of its trunk and its silvery foliage. In Israel, it grows wild and is also cultivated. The most obvious difference between the wild trees and the cultivated varieties is the size of the fruit: the fruit of cultivated trees is usually relatively larger, the pulp is more fleshy and the oil content is higher.

Olive trees live longer than most other fruit trees – even for centuries. Some of the ancient trees now growing in the Galilee are thought to be approximately a thousand years old.

The olive tree has long roots that penetrate down to the deep, damp layers of the soil, making it capable of surviving through Israel’s dry summers. Being a Mediterranean native, it grows in a semi-arid desert climate, and varieties have developed that fit in with local micro-climatic conditions, to withstand cold, dryness and different types of soil.

Ripe olives ready for picking. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Its flowers appear in the second half of April and during May. The fruit grows during the summer, remaining green until November, when it ripens and its color becomes purple-black. Wind and insects perform the pollination. Olive trees start providing fruit when six years old and over the years the trunk becomes hollow. The trees give fruit intermittently: one year there will be a rich harvest and the following year, a poor one.

The pit of the olive is hard. The fruit contains a high ratio of oil and is rich in Vitamin A. Olives have two uses: for eating and for their oil. Although fresh olives contain a bitter substance that makes them unpleasant to eat, pickling removes this substance entirely or partially. Olives need a lot of heat in order to be of good quality when ripe. The riper the fruit, the greater the quantity of oil that can be extracted from them.

The Olive Tree Over Time 

Archeology shows that domestic cultivation and farming of olives in our region started around 4,000 BCE (in the Chalcolithic Period, some 6,000 years ago). From this region, olives spread throughout the entire Mediterranean basin (in the Bronze Age). In terms of economics, olives were enormously important in ancient times. Olive growers were among the wealthiest people, as olive oil was the main source of energy for lamps. The oil was also used for medical purposes, mainly for lubricating the body and healing sores and also as a solution in which volatile cosmetic ingredients were preserved. In modern times, also, olive oil is highly regarded for its health-giving properties: it is said that regular consumption of olive oil has a positive effect on cardiac problems and aids digestion.

Ancient olive tree in Tzuba, in the Judean Plains. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Distribution in the World

The olive tree is the most characteristic tree of the Mediterranean region. It is common along all the coasts of the Mediterranean, where winters are not particularly cold. In the last century, the olive tree became acclimatized for growing in other regions also – places that are neither tropical nor too cold. It was the Spaniards, who introduced olive trees into the American continent, where it settled down well. It is now grown also in South Africa and Australia. Some two million tons of olives are now harvested annually worldwide, most of which is used for making olive oil.

The Olive Tree in Israel

2 year-old olive plantation. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

In commercial terms, olives are now one of the most important fruits grown in Israel, with olive plantations in the mountains of the Galilee, on the coastal plain, in the mountains of Samaria and Ephraim. Recently also, as part of KKL-JNF’s comprehensive Action Plan Negev project, they are being grown in the Negev, at Kibbutz Revivim and at Naot Semadar in the Aravah.

It is estimated that there are some 800 million olive trees worldwide, of which 93% grow in the Mediterranean region. In Israel, there are 210,000 dunams (52,500 acres) of olive plantations.

The most common varieties of Israeli olives are Zuri, Barnea, Manzenillo, Picoel, Muhsan, Nubo, Picholine and Maalot. And scattered here and there among Israel’s many olive plantations are some very ancient trees, both up in the mountains and down on the coastal plain.

Olive Trees at KKL-JNF Sites

The olive tree has held a position of supreme honor in KKL-JNF ever since it was founded 103 years ago and started planting trees all over the country, The very first trees planted by KKL-JNF was a plot of olive trees in Hadera, in 1907, and a year later KKL-JNF foresters planted 12,000 olive saplings in the Hulda Forest.

Pounding olives for pickling and extracting oil during KKL-JNF olive harvesting event over the Sukkot festival. Photo: Ancho Gosh, KKL-JNF Photo Archive

At present, KKL-JNF maintains some 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of olive plantations and it plants approximately 15,000 new olive trees in its forests every year. The saplings are grown at KKL-JNF nurseries from local varieties, and they develop without insecticides or chemical fertilizers. They are then placed to “multi-task” on terraces and in plantations: providing greenery, loveliness, and fruit, while at the same time also preventing erosion of the hillsides.

In recent years, KKL-JNF has also been helping commercial olive farmers in the desert regions of Israel, through the usage of saline water. In order to maintain the age-old traditions connected with olive growing, KKL-JNF each year celebrates the olive harvest festival in its forests throughout the country. The olives are harvested in the traditional manner – by hitting the tree branches with a stick. Everybody who comes to the festival is handed a container in which to gather the olives and an instruction sheet on olive pickling. After short time spent harvesting, they split the olives on a stone surface and press them to obtain the oil.