Recreational Benadryl. Recreational Sudafed. Recreational Nyquil. None of these sound right. In that vein, no parent in his or her right mind would send their child to a bar mitzvah with Shirley Temples made from magnesium citrate, or where there was a game inhaling nitrous oxide from whipped cream cans. Even though these products are all legal, over-the-counter substances, no drug is a game, and any recreation that includes drugs is surely not the type that Jews should want to be part of.
But what about recreational caffeine? Caffeine is a widely accepted recreational drug addiction, with many, if not most adults consuming one or two cups of coffee per day in social settings. Caffeine is addictive by virtue of the fact that withdrawing the substance 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.
Do we accept the recreational drug alcohol? Surely a ben Torah does not regularly sit in a bar to exclusively and recreationally consume alcohol as in much of American society, but it is a regular and accepted part of most Jewish life-cycle events. Alcohol is widely accepted in moderation in the Torah world, provided it is consumed in the context of a Torah environment (e.g., Shabbat table, brit milah, Purim, Pesach). But the drug 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, 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 above certain ages, the risks are often accepted, even by Jews. To be sure, Jewish tradition, while allowing alcohol use, has always warned of the clear danger of its excess.
Step in cannabis. Recreational? New Jersey surely missed the mark in legalizing what they term “recreational marijuana.” No state should sanction any drug recreationally, even legal drugs. Wording is everything. When drugs become “recreational,” the state creates a license to play and teenagers then want to be part of the game. It is abundantly clear that cannabis is not a drug that teenagers, whose minds are still developing, should be experimenting with. Drugs are not a game, addictive or not. Period. And the mixture of recreational cannabis and unemployment are a dangerous combination as well.
That said, what may be best termed for “responsible adult use” cannabis has reemerged as a hot topic in Israel, the U.S. and the world at large. Like alcohol and oxygen, cannabis has been around for millennia, from the time of Gan Eden. In fact, both the Mishnah and Gemara talk about Jews cultivating cannabis fields in the context of forbidden plant mixtures (kilayim), given the roots’ length and strength. Cannabis was a longtime logical choice to avoid shatnez issues in 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 Pharaoh, 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 simply “hemp,” the Radbaz clarifies the Mishneh Torah, telling the Jews that cannabis leaves are chewed in Egypt, can intoxicate and lead to joy. Surely in the Middle East, consuming indiginous cannabis was and is not uncommon, particularly in the Muslim world where alcohol is forbidden. Hashish (concentrated cannabis resin) is not.
Naturally, 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. But wait, cannabis was soaking in rabbis’ homes? Yes, cannabis was a part of normative Jewish life at one point, and all but disappeared with Prohibition, in 1920-era America. In fact, cannabis was so much 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 Berurah 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 Shabbat 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 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 endocannabinoid 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 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 has studied the plant from the 1960s until today. Israel, in fact, boasts one of the most robust medical cannabis research industries in the world. His current protege, Dr. Yehoshua Maor, has been researching the anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties of cannabis in his Jerusalem lab.
There is certainly more work to be done, but 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 than 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 for cannabis? Our sages appear to have thought so in the right context. Jews have been cannabis farmers and traders for centuries. This is a fact.
As a physician, 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 on this matter, including Mercaz Beis Yaakov and Hidabroot.com, 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 invite the community to take a fresh look at cannabis in the light from which Hashem made it and how we Jews, as longtime cannabis farmers, prescribers and traders, have been relating to it for thousands of years.
Rabbi Dr. Yosef P. Glassman, MD, lives in Bergenfield and is the director of hospital medicine at a community hospital in Lakewood, where he leads the COVID-19 unit. He is also CEO of HADARTA.org, which encourages elder aliyah specifically to Safed.