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Why Is the Olive Branch a Symbol of Peace?

Why Is the Olive Branch a Symbol of Peace?

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The Olive Branch in the Bible

Long before the ancient Greeks used the olive branch as a symbol of peace and victory, the Bible recorded that the dove brought an olive branch to the ark as a message that the Great Flood had ended. Here’s what happened:

Following the Great Flood, Noah dispatched birds from the ark to see if the water had receded. First he sent a raven, but it found no place to rest and came back to the ark. Then he sent a dove, but the bird returned as well. Then, on the 301st day of the Great Flood, Noah sent the dove yet again. The dove stayed away all day, and then “the dove came in to him in the evening, and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off; and Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.”1

Why an olive?

Olives Are Hardy

Some explain that olive trees are very hardy and therefore able to withstand extreme conditions. Although the foliage was unable to survive the flood, the olive tree itself did. Thus, the dove bringing back the olive branch indicated that the flood waters had receded enough for leaves to start growing again.2

Now, the Bible is very sparing in its words. The verse could have sufficed with informing us that the dove returned with leaves, without specifying the species. What is the deeper significance of the olive branch, and why do we need to know that the dove held it in her mouth?

Bitter Is Better

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (the foremost biblical commentator, known as Rashi, 1040-1105) quotes the following teaching of the Talmud:3 “The dove said, ‘Better, let my food be as bitter as an olive from the hands of G‑d and not as sweet as honey from the hands of flesh and blood.’”4

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains, the olive branch teaches us that rather than placing our trust in the promises of peace from man, we should place our trust in G‑d. Even if in the moment, it may seem a bit “bitter,” ultimately, it is this promise and covenant that will prevail.

Thus, the true symbolism of the olive branch differs greatly from the conventional idea that it symbolizes a “peaceful new world.”5 (In fact, although the olive branch as a symbol of peace seems to originate from the Bible, it was historically never used by the Jews as such.)

This lesson was particularly pertinent after the Great Flood, an era when people set out to rebuild civilization based on mutual cooperation, but ultimately rebelled against G‑d by building the Tower of Babel and were dispersed throughout the lands. So too in our day, when we work together to promote peace, we must not do so on account of our trust in mankind over G‑d.

Placing our trust in G‑d, rather than man, will usher in the era of true peace with the coming of Moshiach—may it be speedily in our days!

Footnotes
2.
See Rogotchover Gaon, Tzofnat Pane’ach, Genesis 8:11; Likkutei Sichot, vol. 10, p. 30.
3.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b.
4.
Rashi, Genesis 8:11.
5.
Talk by Lubavitcher Rebbe, Noach 5734 (1974); Sichot Kodesh 5734, Parshat Noach, p. 120.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Chana California October 23, 2017

The cost of true "Peace" I really enjoyed this article. The fact of an uncured olive in its natural state is bitter has never occurred to me as being a part of the process of peace! To me it is saying if the yetser harah - the evil inclination - wants a peace that insures it's self centered and selfish needs will be met - that will indeed be a bitter peace. We need to cure that olive - put to death that yetser harah's selfish agenda, and be open to the peace, the Shalom Hashem offers us in relationship with Him. Honoring one another, honoring creation, honoring His plan for us, the Jewish people and doing the mitzvahs that we are able too, in the hope of bringing peace. That does not mean we give up our boundaries to placate the "peace" wants of another in conflict with us. Therein is some of the bitter taste we have to deal with. Will it in the long run give us the pleasant taste of that cured olive that brings a peaceful protection for all? It is certainly worth the effort. B' Shalom all. Reply

Rabbi Z. Wineberg USA October 18, 2017

Global Unity As we're talking about symbols and action that create peace... - it pays to mention that before the flood the problem was "every man for himself" and the problem after the flood was "no man but for the cause" - in truth. the balance between the individual who takes responsibility, as the author mentions, under duty to G-d, for the oppressed, poor, widow, and orphan; who understands that his blessings are a responsibility and his curses are blessings, is the way that both the individual and collective harmonize. Reply

Dobra Jerusalem October 18, 2017

Thank you, Rabbi Shurpin, for this lovely article clarifying the Jewish meaning of "the dove of peace". It does make sense that the dove would have a branch in her (Rashi says the dove was a male dove) mouth rather than a leaf - as you explain that the olive tree is hardy and would have survived the Flood but not yet ready to sprout foliage. But the image of the dove as always shown is with a leaf in its mouth; and the Scriptual text itself calls it an olive leaf! How do we explain this? Could it be that was another of the many miracles that happened at the time of the Flood? Maybe the very reason if found a leaf was so we could learn from Rashi what it said about trust in G-d alone. Reply

Eleanor Skibo Pennsylvania, USA October 18, 2017

Amen and Amen! Always and forever put your trust in G d; men build idols that can’t see, hear, smell, or talk. However, G d builds no idols and he can see all, hear all, smell all, say all and knows all, so who better than
G d should we all put our trust. Reply

Anonymous October 18, 2017

Amen! Fascinating and beautifully said! Reply

Shlomo Elspas LA October 17, 2017

Olive Leaf, not branch. Look it up. Rashi says although the leaf was bitter, the dove was happy to put it in her mouth because she was overjoyed the flood was ending Reply

Jorge Rodrifuez October 18, 2017
in response to Shlomo Elspas :

When there is a natural disaster, we put aside material things and only think of making sure our beloved ones are safe. Thank you Shlomo for inspiring shouts of reflection in our hearts. Shalom Reply

Jorge Garfield October 22, 2017
in response to Jorge:

Sorry I typed shouts for thoughts. Shalom Reply

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