Victor Wynne

Menorah bongs and Talmudic toking: The secret history of Judaism and cannabis

Ben Yakas, interviewing Eddy Portnoy for Gothamist:

Am Yisrael High: The Story of Jews and Cannabis, a new exhibit at YIVO, located in the Center for Jewish History building near Union Square. It is the institute’s first on-site exhibition since COVID began, and it explores the contributions Jews have made in “the field of cannabis” alongside dozens of relics and photos.

Portnoy said the intertwined history of Judaism and marijuana dates back to the Bible. There are references in Exodus, Song of Songs, the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts to a plant known as KaNeh-Bosem (phonetically related to the word cannabis), which is translated as “fragrant reed” or “aromatic cane.” It was a substance used in the incense that was burned in Jerusalem’s ancient temples, as well as part of an anointing oil that the high priests put on themselves.

Lending credence to this, an archeological dig in Israel a few years ago found two altars in the ruins of a third-century BCE synagogue. On top of these altars were burned substances: one had the burned residue of frankincense, and the other had the burned residue of cannabis.

“So it appears that it was part and parcel of Jewish ritual to burn cannabis as incense,” Portnoy said, “and obviously in the wake of 2,000 years of diaspora, it’s something that apparently disappeared.”

Under the Jewish principle of dina d’malchuta dina, Jews are expected to follow the law of the land wherever they are. With cannabis generally illegal or taboo in Western nations, it was also not permitted for Jews. But in other parts of the world where it was a more accepted part of the culture, it was sometimes incorporated into rituals. In Morocco, for example, it was a tradition for Moroccan Jews to sprinkle hashish in the couscous for wedding parties.

And in his research, Portnoy found that Jews who actively used cannabis over the centuries tended to be located in the Middle East, where cannabis in the form of hashish was popular.

The exhibit includes a number of examples of fragmented documents from the Cairo Geniza, a collection of around 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments from the 9th through 19th centuries. That includes a letter written in Judeo-Arabic dated from the 12th-13th centuries, addressed to Abū l-Ḥasan, asking him to purchase some hashish for the letter writer.

I will definitely be making a trip downtown to check out this exhibit in person.