Smoking is one of those topics that ties rabbis up in knots, and marijuana just clouds the issue even more. And that’s before Jewish dietary laws even come into it.
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Yes, smoking is now acknowledged to be bad for you, so indulgence ostensibly contravenes the command not to desecrate the body. But it is also the view, courtesy of King David’s lyric soul, that the Lord protects the unwary, so a blanket prohibition is not only not necessary, it’s irreligious.
Then there’s the issue of special kashrut for Passover. Are cigarettes kosher for Pesach? Is weed?
There’s no point in seeking advice from the ancients, as tobacco only made it to Europe and the Middle East from South America in the 16th century. If anybody in the Land of Israel was smoking something beforehand, it wasn’t that.
Starting with the spread of tobacco from the Americas, the Jewish attitude toward smoking has evolved a long way from initial acceptance and even encouragement. Early Jewish smokers hazily thought tobacco and snuff aided in digestion and other bodily functions. No less an authority than the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), a venerated mystical rabbi, was said to have enjoyed his post-Shabbat pipe. But then, starting in the late 19th century, the medical evidence started to pile up.
The humanity of smoking
The first rabbi known to have prohibited smoking outright was Yisrael Meir (Hakohen) Kagan (1839-1933), also known by the name of one of his books, “Chofetz Chaim.” A prolific writer, Hacohen explained in a different book, "Likutei Halachos," that “several doctors had said smoking is bad for the weak,” and therefore, it violates the commandment to preserve oneself. Aharon Kotler (1892-1962), a prominent Jewish leader in Lithuania and later the United States, was another firm opponent of the demon tobacco, also based on the medical information that was emerging.
At the other end of the rainbow were rabbis who debated whether a puff is occasion for a benediction, and in the middle rabbis who frowned but acknowledge the element of humanity. The deceased Israeli religious leader and posek (legal arbiter) Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, for instance, showed compassion for the flock, saying in 2011 that “doctors are not in favor of smoking and say it’s dangerous, causing lung cancer... It is hard for an ordinary person to quit but he can cut back gradually.”
Of course, his tolerance had its ups and downs. Earlier, in 2009, Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, suggested that teenagers caught smoking should be “slapped hard across the face” by their yeshiva teachers, and in a particularly long sermon, suggested solutions for smokers wanting to quit.
While on the topic of cigarettes and observance, Yosef also noted that when addicts light up a last one before Shabbat, they risk not only violating the day’s sanctity with fire, but with the destruction of written letters – also forbidden on Shabbat – because each cigarette is marked with the name of its manufacturer, for instance, the Israeli company Dubek, and as the cigarette burns down, the letters get destroyed. Now you know.
Apropos Dubek, it has put to rest the unworthy rumor that it replaces the glue used on cigarette paper for Passover because regular glue is chametz (a leavened food, forbidden on the holiday). No such thing.
“The cigarettes made by Dubek are kosher for the whole year,” says Alan Kodron, Dubek spokesman. “Ahead of Passover every year, we get a special rabbinical confirmation that all our cigarettes have been checked and they have no chametz or legumes.”
Dubek users the same raw materials year-round, Kodron elaborates. But to reassure smokers, ahead of Passover, the company marks its packs of cigarettes with a yellow tape saying “Kosher for Passover,” even though it’s exactly the same product. Kodron notes that all points of sale have had the kosher-for-passover marked packs since well before the holiday.
Protecting the unwary, and wasted?
On the other hand, the gaon (great Jewish scholar) Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) thought smoking shouldn’t be prohibited because people who do it really enjoy it, and the chance of actually contracting a disease from the habit was not great – thus, the Psalm 116 tenet “the Lord protects the unwary” applied.
Feinstein’s son, Rabbi David Feinstein, would later roll back his father’s embrace of the smoker to point out that, in fact, the chance of becoming sick directly because of the habit was not small at all. The influential leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (1910-2012) is another who evolved from “the Lord protects the unwary” school to “NO.”
Which brings us to marijuana, about which the medical community is still unsure, though not when pot is mixed with tobacco – because that exposes the user to the full joys of tobacco-related illnesses. In June 2013, a paper in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, based on a “limited number of well-designed epidemiological studies,” showed that light to moderate marijuana smoking was not associated with lung cancer; the evidence regarding long-term heavy use was not clear.
But is pot kosher in general? Is it kosher for Passover?
Industrial hemp is technically from the same species of plant that psychoactive marijuana comes from. The two are, however ,different subspecies. Industrial hemp has low levels of THC, the active ingredient that makes people high, compared to marijuana cultivated for psychoactive use. To get a psychoactive effect, you’d need to smoke a rope’s worth of industrial hemp – which also contains cannabidiol, a chemical that depresses the more amusing aspects of THC.
In any case, yes, marijuana is kosher, or rather – as one rabbi put it – it isn’t not kosher.
But is it kosher for Passover?
Here we come across an intriguing misconception that made the rounds: that hemp is unkosher for Passover for Ashkenazi Jews, who eschew kitniyot (legumes) during the holiday week.
Thing is, cannabis isn’t a legume. In any case, most people use it for smoking, not eating, though the Lord who protects the unwary knows there are any number of recipes for hash brownies and pot cookies. Anyway, people use the leaves, not the seeds.
If the candle is burning
The rabbis, as we said, have a range of views. One Israeli rabbi, who declined to be named, said he opposes marijuana use for “pleasure,” but affirms that it is nevertheless kosher all year round. “Passover itself isn’t a problem,” he says, dismissing any claims that it might be regarded as a legume.
For his part, Efraim Zalmanovich, the chief rabbi of Mazkeret Batya and author of the book "Alcoholism and Drugs in Judaism," devoted himself to the subject after a very personal experience.
“My mother and sister were diagnosed with cancer and suffered from terrible pain. So I asked the doctors for as much marijuana for them as possible,” he says.
Zalmanovich’s stance on recreational marijuana is derived from the Talmud’s position on all drugs: “You become enslaved to an addiction,” he explains. That is bad. “So why do we allow medical use? Because there are people with terminal illness or chronic pain, in which case the addiction causes less harm than the pain itself.”
For those who don’t accept the Jewish ban on all drug use, Zalmanovich offers some solace for the holidays. “Cannabis isn’t chametz, and you can quote me on that,” he reassures. “When it comes to smoking in general, I would say it’s a good time to stop. But if not, then the only issue is lighting up. On holidays, you’re still not supposed to start a fire, but you can transfer it. If there’s a candle already burning, you can pass the light to a cigarette. So if you smoke it or eat it, it’s not a problem.”