Smokin' Seders: What's The Connection Between Passover And Pot?

This cannabis-themed Haggadah draws parallels between the War on Drugs and Jewish enslavement

If you’re going to Roy and Claire Kaufman’s Passover Seder, the annual feast commemorating the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery, the ceremony will include sipping Manischewitz and smoking marijuana.

"During the Seder, we traditionally fill, bless and drink four cups of wine," reads the Kaufmans’ Official Le'Or Cannabis Passover Seder Haggadah. "At tonight’s Seder, we are also free to fill, bless and consume four servings of cannabis or more, either to substitute for the wine, or to complement it. Why wine and/or cannabis? For the same reason we lean when we eat and drink: because as slaves we could not rest, not even when sating our hunger and thirst. And we could not drink wine, the beverage of the ruling class."

Passover and cannabis: what's the connection

Jewish weed enthusiasts can also try Seder recipes for potzo brei and potzo-ball soup or they could even pick up kosher medical marijuana products from Hydropothecary in Gatineau, Que. – the only licensed producer in Canada offering rabbi-blessed bud.

But is there a cultural cannabis connection to Judaism beyond bad jokes about the High Holidays?

Well, it was in in Israel that Dr. Raphael Mechoulam isolated and identified THC and discovered the human endocannabinoid system. And in the 1990s, Israel was among the first countries to legalize medicinal weed and is a cannabis R&D hub while a recent survey demonstrated that 27 per cent of Israelis aged 18 to 65 have used marijuana in the last year.– one of the world’s highest rates of consumption.

“The fact that it’s happening in Israel doesn’t mean anything for Judaism,” Montreal-based Modern Orthodox rabbi Avi Finegold tells Lift News. “Ten years ago a lot of great, experimental jazz was coming out of Israel. It doesn’t mean that the jazz had anything to do about Judaism!”

Weed and the Old Testament

Jewish publications The Forward and Haaretz have published stories about the plant’s biblical roots with cannabis used for textiles, medicine and rituals. (Haaretz reports that the Book of Numbers has a reference “where Aaron the High Priest, no pun intended, probably burned marijuana as an incense offering during a time of turmoil.”)

Alongside these cannabis-infused interpretations of Jewish texts and Israel’s booming medical cannabis industry there are, sigh, the usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In 1971, President Richard Nixon was recorded saying to an aide, “You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? I suppose it’s because so many of them are psychiatrists…" That sentiment endures to the present day. Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer ran an anti-weed lobby editorial that claimed that “most of the marijuana industry, I can assure you, is run by Jews.”

Discriminatory tropes aside, some scholars trace Judaism’s cannabis connection back about 3,500 years. They believe that ‘kaneh-bosem,’ an ingredient in a holy anointing oil given to Moses from God in Exodus, is not the medicinal root calamus, as previously thought, but cannabis. This theory was first established in 1936 when a Polish etymologist claimed the word cannabis was actually of Semitic origin.

The theory continues to have champions today, including Yoseph Needelman, author of Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emergent Torah of Drugs; Saul Kaye, the founder of iCAN, an Israeli cannabis venture fund and technology incubator; and Yosef Glassman, a Bostonian rabbi and doctor who lectures on the topic. It also has its fair share of critics. Dr. Lytton John Musselman, author of A Dictionary of Bible Plants, told Vice the theory is “so weak I would not pursue it.”

Rabbi Finegold also dismisses this idea. “Judaism is marijuana-agnostic,” he says, adding that many of the proponents of the connection were activists who are “basically looking where they want to look and not being critical about it.”

Judaism does not have a hard line on the drug and if questioned by a congregant, Rabbi Finegold would tailor his response based on whether it is harmful or beneficial to their health and well-being, and whether it puts them in danger of breaking the law. But he sees no problem with endorsing medical marijuana: "there's absolutely no reason why one shouldn't take a medicine." 

Blessed buds

He's not alone. Last September, Rabbi Levy Teitelbaum of the Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut certified several of Hydropothecary Corporation’s medicinal products kosher, includingDecarb, the ready-to-consume activated marijuana powder product line, Elixir cannabis peppermint oil and the H2 line of milled products.”

James McMillan, Hydropothecary’s vice-president of business development, said the move for certification was customer-driven. The company had received several requests from potential customers about whether their product was kosher. The decision has positively impacted sales, attracting new Jewish customers but also vegetarians and vegans who want "all their inputs controlled," he tells Lift.

If all goes to plan, the company will get certification for some recreational products this summer. "We are going through the process with [Rabbi Teitlebaum] and our intention is if we can do it, we will do it, for sure."

Rabbi Finegold is not dismissive of people who find spirituality in cannabis. “If you feel that is going to make you a better Jew, am I going to tell you to stop doing it recreationally? Probably not,” he says, but  adds the existence of a cannabis Passover Seder was a “a red herring” in any discussion about Judaism’s stance on cannabis. The Seder is “the one ritual which is perennially mouldable” to whatever your cause is, he explains, from LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter to feminism and baseball.

The Kaufmans' Le'Or Haggadah, for instance, not only provides a guide through the ritual-rich Seder meal and story of the Jewish exodus from slavery, it also draws a parallel with the modern-day injustices and violence endured by people of colour in America’s war on drugs:

“Why, on all other nights, do we eat all vegetables, yet tonight we eat the maror, or bitter herb? It is to remember the bitterness of our own slavery and oppression. The sense of taste is an extremely powerful trigger of memory. In this case, let that trigger be one of collective memory. And let us taste the bitterness of injustice, including the injustice caused by the failed War on Drugs.”

WeedBar LA, which hosts elevated Shabbat parties boasting "four courses of gourmet Jewish food paired with the finest strains," is partnering with Le’Or for this year’s Cannabis Seder on April 7.

It's about getting people together to further the conversation around drug reform policy, and looking at how that ties into the message of Passover," explains Weedbar LA's CEO Cat Goldberg. "This cannabis Seder is about getting people together who may not even smoke weed for them to feel as comfortable as everyone else. We will have an easy mix between Jews, non-Jews, smokers, non-smokers and will just see what kind of ideas and conversations come from it."

But Goldberg sees cultural connections outside of Seder season, too. "It's a plant that God made that I use on a daily basis and helps me be a better person. I think that has to do with Judaism because it's all about how to make the world a better place. The Jews that I surround myself with are the ones that say 'wow, cannabis can save lives, cannabis can make the world a better place.'  Cannabis and tikkun olam [the Jewish imperative to improve society] go together perfectly.


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