a history of Jews & weed

ANCIENT USE

Cannabis use in ancient Israelite society has long been debated. However, an archeological study in 2020 found cannabis residue — including THC — at a 2,700-year-old Israelite temple in Tel Arad, Israel, near the Dead Sea.

Though not much is known about its use, researchers theorise that it might’ve been utilised to induce a high among worshippers. Additionally, it might’ve been used in Ancient Israel as an anaesthetic, such as during childbirth. It was also likely used as incense.

Some historians believe that the plant referred to as “kaneh bosem” in the Torah, which was used as the sacred anointing oil in the Book of Exodus, was in fact cannabis, though most historians disagree.

That said, we do know for a fact that cannabis is mentioned in the Mishna (third century) and the Talmud (third-fifth centuries). According to Rabbi Yosef Glassman, MD, “the Talmud does discuss the growing of fields of cannabis; the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, mentions using cannabis for Shabbat wicks, and many sources talk about cannabis as a staple in Jewish clothing, since it doesn’t absorb spiritual impurity.”

In the Mishna, cannabis is discussed in reference to the prohibition on kla’aim (cross-breeding). Mixing cannabis and flax is prohibited.

 

MIDDLE AGES

Maimonides, the 12th century Sephardic rabbi also known as Rambam, wrote of cannabis, mentioning its medicinal use.

The 13th century Kabbalistic book, Sefer Raziel, suggests using a mixture of wormwood and cannabis to ward off malicious spirits such as dybbukim.

The 16th century chief rabbi of Cairo, Rabbi ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, also known as Radbaz, supported the use of cannabis, stating: “Leaves of cannabis make one happy.”

 

KASHRUT

In Judaism, life saving or life preserving medication is kosher (keep in mind, this applies both to physical and psychological conditions), so medical cannabis is considered kosher, even by the most halachically observant Orthodox Jews. On Shabbat and other holidays, smoking cannabis is not kosher, given the prohibition on lighting fires on those days. Edibles might not be kosher in the case that there might be small insects inside that are not kosher; for this reason, it’s recommended that Jewish users observing kashrut only consume brands that are certified kosher. Regarding cannabis grown in Israel, the plants must observe the Indigenous Jewish practice of shmita, but this does not apply to cannabis grown elsewhere.

The views on recreational cannabis are less black and white. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi explains that, according to the Creation story, all plants are deemed kosher; however, the “morality” of the issue depends on how the plant is being used. For instance, if a person consumes cannabis to the point where they are harming themselves or others, it becomes “unholy.” Other than Purim, Judaism never endorses consuming substances to the point of excess.

Recreational cannabis is not considered kosher for Passover for Ashkenazim, as it is kitniyot.

The Shulchan Aruch recommends using cannabis as shach, the leafy Sukkah roof.

 

PERSPECTIVES

Jews are disproportionally over-represented among recreational cannabis users. This is likely due to their urban pattern of residence, their large presence in academia and avant-garde movements, and the tendency of Jewish families to be “less authoritarian” and more open to “intellectual experimentation.”

A Toronto study found that Jewish high school students were over twice as likely to have tried cannabis as their Catholic counterparts.

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network supports the legalisation of cannabis in the United States.

 

IN ISRAEL

For decades, Israel has been at the forefront of cannabis research (weed-washing?). In fact, it was an Israeli chemist, Raphael Mechoulam, that discovered THC in 1964. Both Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni, another Israeli scientist, first isolated THC in the 1960s. However, while medical cannabis is legal in Israel as of the early 1990s, recreational use is still illegal but partially decriminalised (2018, with more forgiving laws passing in 2020). Since the 2010s, political support for the legalisation of cannabis in Israel has increased significantly.

Israel has the highest rate of cannabis use in the world. As of 2017, 27% of Israelis between the ages of 18 to 65 had used cannabis. Also by 2017, there were 26,000 registered medical cannabis users in Israel. Israel has eight government-sanctioned cannabis growing facilities. A Tel Aviv-based company, the Tikkun Olam Company, has developed many new cannabis strains. Currently, it offers a range of 230 different varieties.

In 2004, the Israeli army began experimenting with the use of cannabis to treat PTSD among soldiers. Additionally, the Israeli government allocates 8 million shekels a year to cannabis research, which makes Israel one of three countries with government-sanctioned cannabis research. More than 50 American companies do cannabis research in Israel.

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