The exhibition “Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis” will be opening on May 5, 2022, and run through December 2022 at the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research.
According to the curators of this unusual show, “there is a rich history and long relationship between Jews and cannabis,” and “references to this plant appear in the Bible, the Talmud, and numerous other Jewish texts.”
Believe it or not, they argue, “numerous rabbis have considered it in their writings,” and “cannabis has been used by Jews in religious ritual and for medicinal purposes from ancient times until today.”
More recently, they reveal, “Jews have been at the forefront of scientific research and medical applications of cannabis. Many Jews have also been deeply involved in the counterculture movement as well as the medical marijuana movement, both of which strove for legalization in different ways.”
On opening night, the exhibition will feature a colorful group of speakers: Ed Rosenthal, a leading cannabis horticulture expert; Madison Margolin, a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life (but of course); Adriana Kertzer, a Brazilian-American founding partner at the psychedelics and cannabis law firm Plant Medicine Law Group; IDF lieutenant (res.) and combat physician as well as a rabbi, Dr. Yosef Glassman; and Eddy Portnoy, a specialist on Jewish popular culture, who will host the evening.
In interviews, Glassman repeats the claims of many Israeli stoners that the “kneh bossem” mentioned in several places in the Bible is a reference to cannabis. Admittedly, it’s tempting to read the Hebrew term in a way that makes it sound like cannabis, especially since it is mentioned in Exodus, The Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
But Professor Zohar Amar from the Department of Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University, whose research specialties are: natural history in ancient times; the identification of the flora of the Land of Israel; and identification of the fauna of the Land of Israel according to descriptions in classical Jewish sources, says this is poppycock. According to him, the “kneh bossem” was one of the ingredients of the anointing oil in which the holy vessels and the priests were anointed (Exodus 1: 26-23), and had nothing to do with the components of the incense that was burnt in the Temple.
“This component cannot be cannabis for several reasons,” Prof. Amar explains. “The plant and its products are not defined as perfumes and are not mentioned as being used in fragrance and incense in any of the cultures of the ancient world, nor does it appear in this context in any of the ancient identification traditions or the authoritative studies dealing with the identification of biblical plants.”
Glassman also claimed that Maimonides prescribed cannabis oil for ear and respiratory conditions that included the common cold and wrote about its proper planting in his “Mishneh Torah.” All I can say is that I looked this up and didn’t find anything. In the future, maybe Glassman could be a little more specific.
There is an intriguing line from Rashi, in his commentary on Shabbat 109: in explaining the nature of the ezov (moth) which is used to sprinkle the ashes of the red heifer, describes it as having three shoots in every strand that are “thin like cannabus.” This does not mean, of course, that Rashi identifies cannabis as being part of the ceremony, only refers to it in describing the biblical moth.
All of which does not deter the curators from concluding: “With origins in ancient times, the story of Jews and cannabis continues to evolve.” Except, most likely, cannabis doesn’t have its origins in ancient Jewish times. Its origin was in central Asia and western China – it was first mentioned in 2800 BCE when it was listed in Emperor Shen Nung’s (father of Chinese medicine) pharmacopeia. No Jews were involved.
“In this exhibit, we explore some of its roots and the contributions of Jews to the many realms of this versatile herb,” the Yivo announcement concludes. And that part I cannot deny: lots of Jews have sampled this versatile herb, and then some.