This past week, Jews celebrated Shavuot, the culmination of their ancestors’ liberation from Egypt—the receiving of the Torah. But according to Orthodox Jewish geriatrician Yosef Glassman, the holiday holds a far higher significance, so to speak.
"Exodus 19:18 holds that on Shavuot, Mount Sinai began to burn and smoke," explained Glassman.
“At that time, Jews received the secret of future world unity,” he continued. It was not revelation “under the influence,” he clarified, but rather, “the smoke of the holy herb growing on Sinai was a conduit through which [God] communicated with them.”
An interpretation of Shemot 34:3 explains, “At the time of the Revelation at Sinai, G-d warned the people not to allow their cattle to graze on the mountain, indicating that it was full of pasture.”
Glassman believes that some of this vegetation was, specifically, cannabis.
What sets Glassman apart in the burgeoning field of medical marijuana is the revival of an ancient practice. A former instructor at Tufts and Harvard Medical Schools, Glassman, 45, who is licensed in Massachusetts and Israel, has notably isolated biblical passages that spell out the very early usage of what he deems a sacred weed.
“Indeed, the entire secular world certainly treats the herb as special,” he said. “It holds an entirely separate system for its distribution, despite its safety profile that trumps both aspirin and acetaminophen.”
Glassman, who served as an Israel Defense Forces lieutenant and combat physician in Israel’s Golani Brigade, is also CEO of Hadarta, a geriatric consultation group whose ultimate goal is to establish a retirement community in Safed, Israel, using primarily a Torah-based approach to medicine. “Hadarta means to beautify or glorify,” he explained. “It comes from the Torah mitzvah ‘v’hadarta pnei zaken,’ to glorify the status of the elderly.”
Four years ago, he introduced a lecture, Medical Cannabis: From the Bible to Boston, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston University, and other sites, when the topic was still somewhat taboo in both medical and religious circles. Although the presentation is lighthearted — “Weed has helped many Americans learn the metric system,” he jokes — he knew he was putting his career on the line.
But as his audience has evolved from curious onlookers and former hippies anticipating spiked brownies, the field has joined the ranks of the respected mainstream.
To date, 25 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medicinal marijuana, while 11 states allow for the use of the non-psychoactive ingredient cannabidiol (CBD) only. Recreational use is sanctioned in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and D.C., and according to the Sun-Times Network, with 20 states reporting marijuana legalization ballot measures on the November ballot, 2016 might be the year that marijuana prohibition is relegated to antiquity.
“The American Cancer Society supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients,” the organization states on its website.
Cannabis has recently resprouted in Judaic circles as well. On Dec. 31, 2015, Vireo Health of New York announced that the Orthodox Union had inspected their facility and, for the first time, awarded certification to non-smokable medical cannabis products.
And in April, The Huffington Post reported that after smelling the herb and determining that it had a healing scent, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky of the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb Bnei Brak granted permission for medical marijuana patients to use it during Passover.
Indeed, a Kosher Kush strain of cannabis is now available at varied dispensaries for pain, stress, insomnia, depression and lack of appetite, as is Kosher Tangie, recommended for stress, depression, pain, fatigue and insomnia.
None of this is surprising to Glassman, whose subspecialty also commenced on Shavuot.
During medical school, while thumbing through the third chapter of the Laws of Shabbat Candle Lighting in the Shulchan Aruch — considered the code of Jewish law — he came upon this passage: “Also, one will beautify [Shabbat candle lighting] when the wick is made from cotton, flax or cannabis….”
A reggae fan, he knew that ganja-revering Rastafarians linked Judaism to their religion. Was cannabis also a missing part of his own?
Glassman gave a 3 a.m. talk on the subject during the Shavuot all-night study at Chabad of Newton, Mass. To prepare, he Googled in Hebrew and examined the Talmud, in which he found this quote: “If one’s field was sown with cannabis or lof [Solomon’s lily], one must not sow on top of them, since they produce crops only after three years.” This led to about a dozen additional biblical references.
Advocates included the Hebrew sage, rabbi and physician Maimonides, or the Rambam (1135-1204). “Maimonides prescribed cannabis oil for a variety of conditions, as is evidenced in his medical writings,” Glassman said.
Cannabis is one of 50 herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine for 4700 years. Ancient Egyptians used it for hemorrhoids and eye pain, while in Greece, wine steeped in cannabis was administered for inflammation and ear problems.
“I have recommended cannabis use for patients in their 90s, for conditions as varied as pulmonary fibrosis, agitated dementia and debilitating arthritis,” said Glassman, who continues to uncover biblical notations on this most historically enigmatic, and mystical, flowering plant.
Susie Davidson is a Boston-based contributor to the Jewish Advocate, the Forward, the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and other media. She has authored books on the Holocaust and two poetry collections. Her next book will examine the continuing social and political influences of punk rock.