The Deep Roots of Cannabis in the Torah | Rabbi Dr. Yosef P. Glassman, MD

BS”D. Recreational marijuana. It surely doesn’t sound good. And, I was surely not surprised to see the outrage of the respected rabbonim of Lakewood condemn the use of marijuana in a recreational fashion in their letter, Kol Koreh.

Recreational implies a leisurely game, and any recreation that includes drugs is surely not the type that Jews should want to be part of. New Jersey surely missed the mark calling for the use of marijuana, or cannabis, its more scientifically correct term in a recreational way. No state should sanction any drug recreationally, even legal drugs, like oxygen, which can both help and damage the lungs in certain amounts. Drugs should be only used for therapeutic purposes, not as a leisurely bar game. When drugs become recreational, teenagers also want to play, and it is clear that cannabis is not a drug that teenagers, whose minds are still developing, should be experimenting with. Drugs are not a game.

This applies to the drug known as alcohol as well, which has certainly gained recreational status in the United States and the world at large. We all know in our gut that a ben Torah does not regularly sit in a bar to exclusively consume alcohol as is prevalent in American society. But does that mean that none of these drugs do not have a place in the Torah world? Surely, oxygen is a natural substance produced by trees which our bodies are all literally addicted to. Without the drug oxygen, our bodies would suffer tremendously and show clear withdrawal symptoms. Too much, however is damaging. Hashem made the air exactly at 21% oxygen, the right amount the bodies needs to survive.

Caffeine is another drug that most Americans are also addicted to, yet it is widely accepted that one drinks one or two cups of coffee per day to maintain that clear addiction. We know that it is addictive by virtue of the fact that withdrawing the substance, say, on Yom Kippur, will often lead to a headache and irritability. Potentially we put up with it given its safety profile, but, in higher doses, caffeine can lead to an irregular heartbeat, so it is not risk free.

Alcohol too is widely accepted in moderation in the Torah world, provided consumed in the context of a controlled Jewish environment (e.g. Shabbos table, bris milah, Purim, Pesach). But alcohol is far from risk free. In fact, excess alcohol is highly addictive, often leading to severe, even life threatening withdrawal symptoms. Not only is alcohol addictive, but it is highly toxic as well, leading to more death and destruction in this country than even cocaine or heroin. This statistic is often brushed over since alcohol is so ingrained into the fabric of all society. And, given that alcohol is ‘recreationally legal’ the risks are often accepted, even by Jews. To be sure, Jewish tradition, while allowing alcohol use, has always warned of the danger of its excess use, and rightly so.

Step in cannabis. Suddenly, cannabis has reemerged as a hot topic, both in Israel, the US and the world at large. Yet cannabis, like alcohol and oxygen, has been around for millennia from the time of Gan Eden. In fact, both the Mishnah and Gemara both talk about cannabis fields in the context of forbidden plant mixtures (kilayim), since cannabis fields are quite difficult to de-root, given the roots’ length and strength. Cannabis was a logical choice to avoid shatnez issues when making clothes, as many texts point out. The tzaddikim of Yerushalayim were oft buried in cannabis shrouds according to the Talmud, and the Daas Hazakenim even posits that Yosef HaTzadik wore a cannabis robe given to him by Paroah, given the fabric’s importance.

The Rambam elaborates in the Mishneh Torah on this potential agricultural dilemma of mixing cannabis with vineyard produce and even gives advice on how one separates cannabis amongst the crops. Additionally, the Rambam prescribed cannabis oil for upper respiratory infections amongst other maladies, based on his medical writings. Yet, lest we translate cannabis as simple ‘hemp’ the Radbaz clarifies the Mishneh Torah, telling the Jews that cannabis leaves are chewed in Egypt, can intoxicate, and lead to joy. Additionally, the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch warn Jews against reciting the Shema within dalet amos of a bowl where cannabis is soaking in water, due to its pungent odor. Bottom line: cannabis was a part of normative Jewish life at one point, and has disappeared with the prohibition of 1920’s America. In fact, cannabis was so part of Jewish life that the Be’er Hetev commented that “it is well known that the Jew seeks out cannabis [in trade],” and that the Mishnah Brurah says that cannabis wicks should be used for Shabbos candles as top choice (me’lihatchilah), due to cannabis’ ability to hold the flame steadily.

In Torah, cannabis’ use is for holy purposes, proper clothing, medicine and Shabbos candles, to name a few. And, this reflects the Torah’s view on anything in the natural world that can be used and abused. The same is for food, which can feed one’s self for a mitzvah, or be part of a gluttonous feast. The same can be said for fire, or even water, both of which can either build or destroy. Cannabis is no different. It is not, however, inherently evil. In fact, I would argue the opposite. What many doctors don’t learn in medical school is that the body has a system of cannabinoids called the endo-cannabinoid system. That means that the body has receptors in every cell that are able to ‘read’ cannabinoids. The body actually makes cannabinoids (similar to what is in the cannabis plant) that affect the entire body in a positive way. The natural cannabinoid that the body makes is called anandamide. Not only does the body make natural cannabinoids, but that the cannabinoid receptor system is the largest receptor system in the entire body, affecting everything from pleasure, to lowering eye pressure, to lowering blood pressure to improving breathing.

Indeed, cannabis medical research is at its height currently, having its birth in Jerusalem under the work of Professor Rafael Meschoulam, who studied the plant from the 1960s until today. Israel, in fact, boasts one of the most robust medical cannabis research industry in the world. Cannabis is likely the drug of the future. Why do I say this? Not only because it can affect the largest receptor system in the body in many positive ways, when used correctly, but cannabis is, by far, the least toxic drug on the planet. That is not to say that one can drive under its influence. That is dangerous, given the THC component, but, hands down, cannabis is safer on the body then aspirin and caffeine and far safer than alcohol to the human physiology.

All of the above, however, does not give carte blanche to use cannabis as a recreational drug in the Torah world. No drug is a game and all drugs can be lethal, but the fact that cannabis is now a more freely available plant should make one pause and think: can there be a holy use of cannabis? Our sages appear to have thought so in the right context.

As a physician serving the Lakewood community, I am confident that cannabis provides a physical refuah for many an ailment in a safe way, and as a rabbi who represents several prominent orthodox organizations in Eretz Yisroel, I am sure that cannabis may even have a place in the realm of a spiritual refuah, if prescribed in a holy place and at a holy time.

I commend the respected rabbis of Lakewood in their Nisan letter, Kol Koreh, for their condemnation of recreational drugs, yet I invite the same rabbis and the community to take a fresh look at cannabis in the light from which Hashem made it and how we Jews have been relating to it for thousands of years.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. What a beautiful letter to the community. Rabbi Dr. Glassman made his points in a subtle way while maintaining genuine respect for the Kol Korah. Thank you

  2. While the point of the article is excellent, There are several Perushim on what Cannabis in the Mishnayos, Gemorah, and Rishonim actually mean.

    To assume that everyone goes according to the Radbaz’s understanding is an oversight at best. I, unfortunately, do not have the time to write a full article, but you can look in the Sefer Ha’ Oruch where he brings 3 different meanings for it. There are also several scholarly articles already written about it’s source and history that can be easily found online.

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      • Thank you! can you recommend a dose for light anxiety. Also I’m not sure what the whole thing is the Rabbonim were going after recreational use to get high. Not after hemp or Cbd or for medicinal use

  3. Perhaps Chazal are referring to the hemp plant. It looks and smells just like marijuana. Hemp contains CBD with not a significant amount of THC (which gets you stoned). CBD has many health benefits and does not get you high. It may be calming and has other benefits, but none involve intoxication. Do not confuse Marijuana with hemp. They are both “Cannabis”. The benefits of hemp are well known amongst many cultures. Marijuana may have health benefits under a physician’s care for people with severe disease or disorders, Lo Aneinu, but Marijuana’s recreational use historically has a dark side. Hemp does not.

  4. For anxiety, start with a dropper of 40mg under the tongue. Let it stay for 30 seconds before swallowing. Take it in the morning and the same before bed. If you don’t feel calmer by the next day you can double it. It works for me in about 30 minutes and I’m much calmer and focused the whole day and sleep better. Hatzlacha Rabba and Chag Sameach!

  5. From my years of studying the cannabis plant I can safely say it is like the pilots seat of an airplane. An ignorant untrained person trying to use it might soon be in a bad situation but someone knowledgeable in its operation can reach distant places otherwise unreachable.
    99% of the masses today aren’t knowledgeable on this plant at all and solely associate the name “cannabis” or “marijuana” with the plants abuse by teens or adults and are therefore condemning. I agree the plant should be kept out of the hands of the ignorant wishing to abuse it for recreational purposes

  6. To argue the merits of medical marijuana in an argument about recreational marijuana is ridiculous.
    The facts are that most teenagers and most adults using marijuana are doing so recklessly and just for the sake of intoxication.
    I have a few friends that use this drug on a constant basis and many who use it periodically, none of whom use it for the medical qualities.
    This letter is a mistake. The letter is Misleading, don’t think marijuana is healthy because it can be used safe and for good purposes under a doctors watch or something like that, it won’t be.
    Stay safe.
    Gary

  7. If the state of NJ were to allow the recreational use of opioids, would it be acceptable to have a Dr. write an article extolling the virtues of opioids for specific medical use?

    This article is misleading, the letter from the R”Y and Rabbonim was referring to recreational use. Even though the Dr. backhandedly agreed to their statement, the fact that it was written in response to the letter from the Rabbonim gives a very different impression.

    the author is also doing a disservice in conflating hemp with cannabis. Additionally, his historic references are highly suspect. The practice of cultivating cannabis with the intention of maximizing THC content is relatively recent. The plant the existed centuries ago, is not comparable to the what exists today.

    The fact that the body creates cannabanoids that act similarly to Marijuana is irrelevant is irrelevant. The body makes many things, and many times, when the body produces to much of what it makes naturally, it leads to very serious disease and sickness, let alone when an excess is introduced to the body artificially.

    Given the impression that Cannabis is perfectly healthy and natural is disingenuous. Many studies show that even occasional use can harm ones memories, both short and long term, in some cases not only removing memories, but implanting false memories. It can also negatively impact the pulmonary functions and induce heart attacks.

    Not to mention the fact that it can lead to depression and lack of motivation. If one knows people who use cannabis, the negative effects it can have can be quite noticeable

    The one thing I do agree with the author on is that it still requires a lot more study, at one point, cocaine was viewed as safe and the “drug of the future”, as was tobacco.

    The writing of this article, in the context it was written is highly irresponsible

  8. This letter does not conflate recreational use from medical use, it clarifies and emphasizes the distinction. The good doctor agrees with the rabbis. Its guaranteed that if the holy texts support spiritual use of cannabis, any Torah Jew should embrace it, distinguished Rabbis especially. Even Drunkenness has place in Torah life. On Purim. All things are made and given by the Infinite for a purpose, a use, in a specific way. If incense was used in the first temple as a spiritual window, why should we disdain it? If it induces a state of receptivity to Hashem, should we not seek to understand it? Could it be a lifeline to Mossiach? Since distinguished rabinim have come to different conclusion about these matters, As Sincere Jews, we should answer these questions with as much openness as we can muster, seeking clarity from the ancients and Hashem.

  9. B”H. I appreciate all of the thoughtful responses to my letter. In no way am I advocating recreational use. Medical use is no question by most of the orthodox world. I am however trying to make a point that responsible adult use in proper context may have a place in the Jewish world. Nobody has addressed the issue that alcohol is over 100 times more dangerous than Cannabis but is a common synagogue staple. True drug risk is determined by the LD50 (lethal dose) and damage to self and society (accidents, loss of work, etc). Studies out of Israel and beyond that show cannabis conferring neuroprotection and not the opposite as was originally thought. Again this is not for teenagers except as Rx by a pediatrician in exact doses. True people abuse it as they do alcohol and vapes. people also abuse Benadryl. Ban one. Ban all. Let’s not be hypocrites. It’s better simply to educate all to be responsible adults.

    • Dr. Glassman, context is important, so even though you did not intend to minimize the problems of recreational use, the fact is it was written soon after the state of NJ legalized it, at the Rabbonim wrote a letter against it.

      Additionally, why mention clothing made of hemp, when the article is about marijuana if not in an attempt to normalize its use. That may not have been your intention, but that is the effect.

      Similarly you make a claim that Marijuana is the least harmful drug on the planet, That is a very wild claim, what is your source for that? Many scientists don’t even rank it as the least harmful recreational drug, let alone least harmful period. (Vox article study 2015). The only similar claim that can be found when Googling it, was made when comparing it to a relatively small basket of recreational drugs.

      It is strange that you honestly think that writing it is less harmful than caffeine and aspirin (source please), would not provide justification for those who use it recreationally.

      In your comment itself where you discuss the LD50, that in itself is disingenuous. LD50 only measure it’s toxicity, it is not a measure of the long term harm regular use can cause.

      The fact is the long term harm is largely unknown. As recently as 1990 the THC content was 4%, currently, it is 12%, and there have not been many long term studies of marijuana at all, let alone the current version of it, with the much higher THC content.

      What I find strange, why write an article about it at all? If you are only advocating for medical use, then it is up to the ones Dr. to suggest it to his patient. If you think Dr’s don’t prescribe it enough, than write a letter directed to other Dr’s, unless what you are really advocating for is Dr shopping, where one decides what drug they want and shop for a Dr until they find one who will prescribe it

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