May 29, 2024
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Rav Moshe Feinstein Prohibits Marijuana

Marijuana Versus Alcohol

Whenever someone asks a rabbi about the halachic priority of marijuana use, he cites Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:35) prohibiting it in the strongest terms. However, people often ask for a difference between marijuana and alcohol use. After all, the Torah does not forbid alcohol use and even requires it on certain occasions. Moreover, the Torah does not forbid consuming unhealthy foods. Why do poskim tolerate some behaviors and reject others?

Cake Versus Poison

The question hinges upon the general halachic requirement to refrain from dangerous and unhealthy activities. The source for this requirement is Devarim 4:15, where we are instructed, “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem—and You shall guard your souls exceedingly carefully.” The Rambam seems to divide this requirement into two different categories. He lists (Hilchot Deot 4:1) certain foods and activities that, because they weaken the body, one needs (“tzarich”) to avoid, but also mentions (Hilchot Rotzeiach Ushmirat Nefesh 11:5) numerous dangerous activities that Chazal outright prohibited. The activities listed in Hilchot Rotzeiach Ushmirat Nefesh appear strictly forbidden, while those in Hilchot Deot seem discouraged but not technically forbidden. Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 15:39) understands this because the former is far more dangerous than the latter. Thus, while drinking from the water where a snake may have placed its venom is technically prohibited, it is not outright forbidden to overindulge in fattening foods.

Rav Feinstein’s Ruling About Marijuana

Into which of these two categories should we place marijuana? Is it more like poison or cake? Rav Feinstein insists it is poison. His primary reasons are: 1) It damages the body. 2) It diminishes one’s mental capacity. 3) It often forms an addiction. Rashi explains that the ben sorer u’moreh (Devarim 21:18-21) steals money to satisfy his appetite for quality wine. For this reason, the Torah treats the ben sorer u’moreh (“stubborn and rebellious son”) extremely harshly. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:35) derives from the ben sorer u’moreh that the Torah prohibits forming an addiction to any substance. Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:35-36) agrees that it is forbidden to develop a dependence. 4) The Torah (Vayikra 19:2) demands that we act in a holy manner and not as a degenerate. Marijuana use leads to acting in a very demeaning manner.

Notice that Rav Feinstein does not include dina d’malchuta dina—the halachic obligation to obey civil law, on his list. Rav Moshe, who wrote this teshuva in 1973, as the impact of the 1960s drug revolution began to seep into our community, likely foresaw society’s moral degeneration and its eventual move to legalize marijuana. Thus, he composed his teshuva to ban its use even when civil law does not criminalize it.

Torah Perspectives on Alcohol

Still, people wish to know the difference between marijuana use and alcohol consumption. So, let us examine the Torah’s approach to alcohol: The Torah never forbids consuming alcohol. The debacle resulting from the early 20th-century American prohibition of alcohol highlights the Torah’s wisdom. However, the Torah (as noted by the Ramban to Bereishit 9:26) presents warning stories of disasters that befell people who did not control their alcohol consumption. The examples include Noach, Lot and Nadav and Avihu (according to one opinion cited by Rashi to Vayikra 10:2), and the Aramean King Ben-Haddad and his 32 allied leaders who fell to Achav in Melachim I, 20:16, due to their being in a drunken stupor.

The Torah believes that, sometimes, alcohol can be used for good. However, it must be controlled. At the Seder, we have four cups of wine, not 10. The amount/shiur for kiddush is a revi’it, three-to-four ounces. These halachic frameworks teach us to control alcohol and not let it control us. In this way, we avoid the catastrophic results of the behavior of Noach, Lot and (possibly) Nadav and Avihu. If we are to consume alcohol, we must control it. It is forbidden to permit alcohol to control us.

Purim Clarification

People often ask that the halacha seems to lift all restrictions regarding alcohol consumption on Purim. However, this understanding of drinking on Purim is mistaken.

The Biur Halacha (695:2 s.v ad) presents an important comment of the Me’iri about drinking on Purim. The Me’iri writes: “We are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy. We are not obligated to engage in a simcha of frivolity and foolishness, but rather (to engage in) a simcha of enjoyment which should lead to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles He has performed for us.”

The Orchot Chaim (cited in Beit Yosef Orach Chayim 695) objects to getting drunk on Purim, without specifically mentioning Rabbah and Rabi Zeira’s incident. He writes, “(The Gemara) does not mean that one should become drunk, for drunkenness is an absolute prohibition, and there is no greater sin than it—it leads to adultery, murder and many other sins—rather, one should drink a bit more than usual.”

The Biur Halacha also cites the Chayei Adam, who limits this halacha like the Orchot Chaim. He writes, “If one believes that drinking on Purim will interfere with his performing any mitzvah, such as birkat hamazon, reciting mincha or maariv or that he will behave in a boorish manner, it is preferable that he not drink (or become inebriated), as long as his motives are proper.” Obviously, one who is driving after the seudat Purim must refrain from drinking. In addition, the Mishnah Berurah (695:5) and the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chayim 695:5) rule that it is proper only to drink a bit more than usual and then nap.

The Yalkut Yosef (Orach Chayim 695:14) agrees: “The obligation to drink on Purim does not refer to becoming drunk, for becoming drunk is absolutely prohibited. Rather, one should consume a bit more than usual and arrive at a very early and mild stage of intoxication.”

Marijuana Versus Alcohol

Biur Halacha and Yalkut Yosef prohibit becoming inebriated. It is degenerate behavior to which Rav Feinstein refers. Thus, while we can have alcohol in small and controlled amounts, halacha forbids us to incapacitate ourselves, even temporarily. Herein, lies the difference between marijuana and alcohol. Alcohol can be consumed in small amounts when a person does not become incompetent. Marijuana, by contrast, is consumed to achieve a “high,” the equivalent of becoming drunk, and, therefore, is categorically prohibited.

Medical Use

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (cited by his eminent son-in-law Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Tzohar 11:221) rules that Rav Moshe’s psak does not apply to competent medically prescribed marijuana to relieve severe pain. Addiction experts, though, counsel exercising considerable caution even in these situations to avoid worsening a patient’s long-term well-being. There have been, unfortunately, many situations when medically prescribed narcotics led to the patient forming a debilitating addiction.

THC Versus CBD

It has been suggested that Rav Moshe’s teshuva applies only to THC, the addictive component of marijuana, and not to CBD, which induces a “high” but is not addictive. However, there are two problems with this distinction: First, tests have shown that products labeled as CBD often have THC(https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/is-cbd-safe-and-effective/faq-20446700). Second, CBD induces a high which we have shown is a state we may not enter.

Broader Perspectives

People often ask what halacha recommends for relaxing and unwinding. I suggest exercising, eating with a loved one or close friend and enjoying wholesome reading. Such health-enhancing and life-affirming activities contrast sharply with marijuana use which degrades one’s health and well-being. Moreover, our bodies and minds are precious gifts from Hashem that we dare not abuse. Finally, those who seek narcotics to take a break from life’s challenges likely would benefit from learning better coping strategies from professional counselors.

Conclusion

Rav Moshe Feinstein’s approach to marijuana is well-accepted among poskim. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Maadanei Shlomo, page 148), Rav Elyashiv (as mentioned), Rav Chaim Kanievsky (who referred to marijuana as “sam mavet—poison”) and Rav Shlomo Avner (Teshuvot Sheilat Shlomo 4:264) adopt the same firm opposition. No major posek disagrees.

Moreover, Rav Feinstein very seldom uses strong language in his writings. However, he employs an unusually harsh tone to denounce marijuana use. He concludes his responsum by declaring, “It is simple and clear that marijuana use is severely prohibited; we must exert every effort to eradicate this tumah (impurity) from all of Am Yisrael.” Simply put, marijuana use has no place in a Jew’s life.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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