How Weed Became Part of Thriving Cultures – Part 8: Judaism

It may come as a surprise to many people that Judaism possibly has a rich history of marijuana usage. This is despite great debate over whether weed is even ‘kosher.’ For those who aren’t sure, kosher foods are those which conform to Jewish dietary law (kashrut) which is mainly derived from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The laws of the Torah state that a kosher species must be killed by a ritual slaughterer, also known as a ‘Schochet.’

The confusion over whether cannabis is ‘kosher’ stems from the fact that marijuana was never referred to directly in the Bible or other sacred texts (although some scholars believe it is mentioned several times, and I will get to that later). Religious authorities within Judaism tend to err on the side of weed prohibition. Many Jews who are against weed use cite the words of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a highly-respected ‘posek’ (an authority on Jewish law).

According to Rabbi Feinstein in 1973, drug use was completely against Jewish law because Jews are obligated to maintain good health. He also believed that weed use was wrong due to its psychoactive effects. In 1977, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson was asked if it was an abomination to smoke marijuana. He said: “Very much so. And the question is very astonishing.”

However, you could argue that the Rabbis, and their responses, were products of their time. Marijuana was completely outlawed more or less worldwide during the 1970s. As the decades rolled by, and weed became legalized in certain states, religious authorities in Judaism revisited their opinions, to their credit.

Certainly, the fact that weed use was probably a breach of Jewish law did not prevent people from using it en-masse. Today, America’s Jewish population are believed to be among the most frequent users of marijuana for recreational purposes! In 2013, Rabbi Efraim Zalmanovich publicly stated that medicinal marijuana was ‘kosher,’ but recreational use was not.

During Passover in 2016, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky stated that cannabis was kosher. His opinion is of huge importance because he is regarded as the greatest living authority on Orthodox Jewish law. While the debate over whether marijuana use is kosher or that it prevents Jews from studying the Torah and performing commandments (Mitzvos) continues, the herb might well have been a major part of Judaism for 2,000 years.

Was Marijuana Even Used in Judaism?

The answer is: “No one knows.” Before we dive into this question, let’s take a brief look at the history of Judaism. There is religious literature which outlines the story of the Israelites going back to at least 1500 BC. The Merneptah Stele is probably the first mention of Israel in 1200 BC, and Judaism as a religion is first mentioned in Greek records from the end of the fourth century BC, which was the beginning of the Hellenistic period.

There is no question that Jews could have been exposed to marijuana as early as the 6th Century BC. Traders from Judea arrived in India in around 562 BC. By 516 BC, the Jews had returned to Jerusalem from exile and built the Second Temple with the aid of the Persians. We know that marijuana was almost certainly used in India and Persia by this time.

For the most part, academics who specialize in the study of the Hebrew Bible claim that weed is not documented or even mentioned in early Judaism. However, in recent history, some scholars have insisted that cannabis was mentioned numerous times in the Bible. According to Sula Benet in 1967, a plant called keneh bosem was mentioned five times in the Hebrew Bible.

It was also apparently used in the holy anointing oil discussed in the Book of Exodus. Benet and others believe that keneh bosem was marijuana. Other scholars have dismissed these claims and say the plant is either lemon grass or calamus. There is no question that the plant keneh bosem is in the Bible. You can see it in the following books:

  1. Book of Numbers 17:12-13
  2. Isaiah 43:24
  3. Ezekiel 27:19
  4. Jeremiah 6:20
  5. Song of Songs 4:14

Yosef Glassman, an ex-lieutenant in the Israel Defense Force, who is now studying to be a doctor, is in little doubt that keneh bosem is cannabis. His quest for the truth began 20 years ago, but it is only in recent years when marijuana has been made legal in numerous American states, that the Boston-based geriatrician felt comfortable digging deeper.

Glassman is convinced that marijuana is a long-held aspect of Jewish law and tradition that has remained buried for centuries. He said that the Talmud clearly makes references to weed’s non-medicinal properties, including its uses for clothing and accessories, not to mention its ritualistic use.

In the Book of Numbers, Aaron the High Priest apparently burned cannabis as incense during a tumultuous time. Glassman says another passage, this time in Exodus 30:22-23, involved God telling Moses to find “herbs of medicinal quality” and to take fine spices, 500 shekels, pure myrrh, and keneh bosem. During his research, Glassman also discovered that marijuana could have been used as a painkiller during childbirth in ancient Israel.

Marijuana Use Throughout the History of Judaism

In 1993, archaeologists made a startling discovery in a tomb near Beit Shemesh. The remains of a girl (aged estimated at 14) were found, and Israeli scientists were able to conclude that she was given cannabis as an anesthetic during childbirth. The tomb dates back to the fourth century AD, and at the time, the discovery was billed as the mortal remains of the world’s earliest cannabis smoker.

The remains of a 40-week old fetus inside the girl suggest she perished during childbirth. The ashes found in the tomb were probably marijuana which had been burned in a vessel and administered.

According to the 13th-century text, Sefer Raziel, a mixture of wormwood and marijuana was a good way to ward off demons! In the 16th century, the chief Rabbi of Cairo, Rabbi ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, stated that “leaves of cannabis make one happy.”

During the 18th century, the founder of the Chasidic movement, Baal Shem Tov, was a medicine man who picked wild herbs to create medicinal tinctures. He apparently used to get high by smoking marijuana from a water pipe.

In recent history, Israel has become one of the world leaders in marijuana research. An Israeli scientist, Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known as the ‘father of modern cannabis,’ was the first to isolate, synthesize, and analyze marijuana compounds such as CBD and THC in the 1960s. The medical marijuana market in Israel is now worth billions of dollars, and a significant sum of this money is going back into research.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana Use in Judaism

To say that marijuana was definitely not used in ancient Judaism is quite simply a case of burying your head in the sand. Every culture that shared a border with the Israelite kingdom used cannabis. Weed pollen was found in the tomb of Ramses the Great in Egypt for example, and the ancient Persians also used the herb. Given Israel’s trade links 2,500 years ago, it seems inconceivable that traders did not come across marijuana.

In the modern era, the links between marijuana and Judaism remain strong. The legendary cannabis activist, Jack Herer, was Jewish for instance. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon famously complained that everyone calling for the legalization of weed was Jewish.

As for today, Israel continues to lead the way in cannabis research. Meanwhile, North American Jews consume the herb at a significantly greater rate than the general population. Marijuana has even received the kosher ‘all-clear.’ Recent research suggests that cannabis could be good for body and soul, as long as you use it legally and responsibly, something that Jews have known for longer than most.