Jews & Cannabis: A Relationship Rooted in Science & Religion

byrebeccaspence3 minutes

The close relationship between Jews and cannabis has roots both ancient and modern. As a medicinal plant long cultivated in the Middle East, it’s probable that marijuana was used by the ancient Hebrews for ritual purposes and may even have been referred to in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, as kaneh bosm.

In more recent times, the state of Israel has emerged as a world leader in medical cannabis research. Never mind that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the marijuana plant’s psychoactive compound—was first isolated in 1964 by an Israeli chemist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Mechoulam and his team went on to discover the human endocannabinoid system, making Israel the birthplace of modern cannabis science.

Jews have long been at the forefront of the U.S. cannabis industry, and many of the country’s leading drug policy activists, who have fought for decades for marijuana’s legalization, are also members of the tribe. Today, there are even cannabis events such as Chai Havdalah that focus on the Jewish community.

Is Marijuana Kosher?

Because cannabis is a plant, as opposed to an animal product, it’s inherently kosher—if smoked, that is. When ingested as an edible or a concentrate, however, cannabis becomes subject to the Jewish dietary laws. As with any other plant that may have come into contact with non-kosher materials during processing—think insects, which, in the case of cannabis, could infest the bud—rabbinical inspection is deemed necessary.

At the end of 2015, the Orthodox Union (OU), the world’s largest kosher certification agency, certified as kosher its first line of medical cannabis products. Extracts made by Vireo Health of New York now bear the OU’s coveted seal of approval, as do edibles made by Mitzva Herbal Co. in Los Angeles.

“Judaism prioritizes health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain,” Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of OU Kosher, said in a statement announcing the initial decision. “Using medical cannabis products recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a chet, a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment.”

Four months later, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leading ultra-Orthodox authority on Jewish law, blessed cannabis as a healing plant and declared marijuana kosher for Passover.

Cannabis & the Hebrew Bible

Some Jewish scholars contend that the herb referred to in the Hebrew Bible as kaneh bosm can be translated to mean cannabis. The plant is first mentioned in Exodus as one of several ingredients, including myrrh and cinnamon, found in the sacred anointing oil used to initiate priests and kings.

It’s also said that the burning bush Moses saw at the top of Mt. Sinai, when God commanded him to lead his people out of Egypt, may have been a marijuana plant. While there’s no way to prove the theory, it’s plausible that the prophet’s fiery vision was an allegorical representation of cannabis, the liberating effects of which could have inspired him to seek freedom.

Incorporating Cannabis into Jewish Ritual

As cannabis has made its way into the mainstream, and taboos surrounding the medicinal plant have finally begun to fall away, an increasing number of Jews are incorporating marijuana into their religious celebrations. Events with names like Pot Shabbat and Chai Havdalah have begun to crop up, and in 2015 the first official Cannabis Seder, which brought together Jewish drug policy activists, was held in Portland, OR.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, provides yet one more opportunity to incorporate cannabis into holiday ritual. The tradition of dipping apples in honey, meant to signify a sweet new year, could be made that much sweeter by using cannabis-infused honey.