Olives and Memory
Is there any problem with eating olives? Is there any need to eat olives with olive oil? I have heard that there is some problem with eating olives and memory. Is there a source for all this?
The Talmud (Horayot 13b) says, “There are five things which cause one to forget one’s learning…[one of which is] regularly eating olives…There are five things which restore one’s forgotten learning…[one of which is] regularly eating olive oil….This supports the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan who said, ‘Just as olives cause one to lose seventy years of learning, so olive oil restores seventy years of learning’.”
According to this, olives are harmful to one’s memory, while olive oil is actually good for one’s memory. One of the commentators on the Talmud, the Maharsha, notes that is actually suggested in the Torah. The verse enumerating the special produce of the Land of Israel states, “a Land of wheat, barley, figs and pomegranates, a Land of olive oil, and dates.” Each species is referred to by the fruit itself, aside from olives which are mentioned by its juice. This is because the olive itself is harmful; rather the oil is praised because of its special benefit to memory.
Some latter commentators qualify the conditions under which olives cause this harm. Of these, some say it only applies to raw olives but not to olives which are salted, pickled or cooked. Others say it only applies if one eats them without proper intention and attention, but not if one eats them with focus on one’s learning. Yet others suggest it applies only if one eats them regularly, but not if eaten only from time to time. However, it seems that the general custom is to be careful even regarding pickled olives eaten only occasionally.
This is the basis for making a special effort to eat olives together with olive oil. Since one eats them together, the potentially harmful quality of the olives will be nullified by the beneficial effect of the olive oil. According to some, this is the intention of the Talmud when recording the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, namely that eating olives and their oil in conjunction is not a problem. Those who do so generally add only a relatively small amount of oil to even many olives.
Interestingly, an article in the “Independent” indicates that modern research corroborates the Talmud’s ancient take on the benefits of olive oil:
“Making olive oil part of your diet could prevent memory loss and sustain mental agility, according to a study. The research, published in the journal ‘Neurology’, has shown that [it] protects memory performance and guards against decline of the cognitive processing functions that are often associated with ageing. ‘It seems that in the ageing process there is an increasing demand for unsaturated fatty acids and a Mediterranean diet of…extra-virgin olive oil protects people from age-related cognitive decline,’ said Antonio Capurso of the University of Bari, who carried out the study on 300 people aged between 65 and 84.”
But before downing spoonfuls of straight olive oil, consider another teaching of the Talmud (Berachot 35b) regarding olive oil, namely that ingesting it on its own can be harmful in other ways, such that one who does so would not make a blessing when eating it that way. Rather, the Talmud says olive oil should be eaten together with other foods like bread or olives or with liquids like vinegar or soups. When one is primarily interested in ingesting the olive oil itself, for example when mixed with and imbibed with another liquid, the blessing to be made is “borei pri ha’eitz” (Sh. Ar. Orach Chaim 202:4). This illustrates its importance, and bears out the idea of the Maharsha cited above, namely that the oil itself is considered fruit.