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July 12, 2012 6:42 pm

Drugs in the Talmud

avatar by Erica Brown /

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Cannabis sativa. Photo: Pauk.

Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, at an international anti-drug conference in Tehran, recently claimed that the “spread of narcotics in the world emanates from the teachings of the Talmud.” He added, “The Talmud teaches that it is lawful to acquire wealth through legal and illegal means… which gives (the Jews) the right to destroy humanity.”

Rahimi also believes that the narcotics trade’s primary operator is the Zionist regime. I do not know this man personally, but perhaps he is indeed a Talmud scholar, and these sources escaped me in my own Talmud education. Who am I to disagree? The Talmud is an influential text, and perhaps it is responsible for the spread of narcotics in the world. I needed to investigate.

Rahimi must be particularly esoteric because there are few sources in traditional rabbinic literature about drug use. Rav did caution his son Rabbi Hiyah not to “get into the habit of taking drugs” (BT Pesakhim 113a) so that certainly was not supporting Rahimi’s claim. The Talmud did recognize that drugs do impact individuals differently and understood many plant-based drugs as having potentially injurious effects (BT Eruvin 54a; BT Nida 30b and 55b). This also was not working in Rahimi’s favor.

Perhaps Rahimi meant to include the Bible which does state a formula for special oils and frankincense that was to be used in the Tabernacle and later the Temple. “And the Lord said to Moses: Take the herbs stacte, onycha, and galbanum—these herbs together with pure frankincense; let there be an equal part of each. Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure and sacred. Beat some of it into powder…” (Ex. 30:34-36). Clearly there was a lot of rolling and blending here, and this may have given Rahimi his initial start.

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Scholarship on this incense reveals that it may have been made with plants, plant roots and resins, extracts from animals and fish and even human fingernails. This incense had to made with very specific proportions and was regarded as so sacred that a layperson was not allowed to smell it. “Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, shall be cut off from his kin” (Ex. 30:37). It’s awfully hard to spread drug use if the average person is not allowed even a little sniff.

In April 1992, Vendyl Jones, a biblical archeologist who worked for over 20 years near the Dead Sea in Qumran actually discovered a large stash of biblical drugs. You could call it the biggest drug bust of the ancient world. They uncovered 600 kilos of a “reddish-brown organic substance” in a protected rock structure. Analysis demonstrated that this indeed was the ketoret, or incense, mentioned in the Bible, and samples were presented to Israel’s chief rabbis at the time. I don’t know if they smoked it together, but I doubt it. It was probably more valuable as an artifact.

And here is where the Talmud comes in. This incense was regarded as very powerful in smell and impact. The Talmud records (BT Yoma 39b) that goats would sneeze from its smell, and brides marrying in Jerusalem did not need to wear perfume pendants because the Temple smell traveled so far. Even women in Jericho, the Talmud writes, never needed to perfume themselves because of the odor. In this subtle sense Rahimi was right. The drugs of the Talmud were indeed strong and their influence spread far away from their original location.

In actual fact, Judaism takes an approach of moderation in regard to mind-altering substances, particularly alcohol, which is discussed at length in the Talmud. Although alcohol was regarded in Psalms as a way to make humans happy, too much happiness was regarded as a spiritual danger. A nazarite refrained from drinking to achieve a higher spiritual state, and priests were not allowed to drink during service. Judges at court were not allowed even the smallest amount of alcohol intake in the event that it would mar their judgment, and a scribe is not permitted to write a divorce document for an inebriated man who demands it. There are even later rabbinic discussions on coffee, tea and tobacco consumption because of their addictive properties.

Rahimi, get thee to a yeshiva. You need a refresher course to brush up on your Talmud. While I respect your Jewish scholarly erudition, you probably should hire a better fact-checker.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • David

    Iran is the 2nd highest consumer of drugs in the world and the Iranian Government makes billions from drug deals they route to Europe.

  • Eli Maimon

    It is a well known fact that the Taliban finances its operations with the sale of the drugs they produce.

    Erica overlooks the basic fact that the drugs President Rahimi is talking about are not the “drugs” of the Talmud which are medicinal and not psychotic.
    And just FYI, Tziporen is not “human fingernails” but cloves.

  • Good job, keep it up. I appreciate Israel and its allied nations campaigning for peace. buisness man from lagos nigeria. 07031572169

  • kevobx

    What ever happened to having a heritage? Esau’s worldly culture blindsided the world into darkness. The star of David is Satan himself. The star of Jacob, is the Lord Jesus Christ. No man in the the world can tell the truth, and be honest! Answer this please. How is king David related to Jesus Christ? *1st Samuel 18:18 And David said unto Saul, Who am I? and what is my life, or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be son in law to the king? (Remember, Saul becomes Paul in Damascus, saved) *Acts 22:13 Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. (*1st Samuel 18:22 synagogue temple worshippers, forgot truth, saying to themselves, that Jesus is the son of David) What about king Solomon’s father? (Acts 2:34) What about Joseph’s father? (Genesis 37:3) Who is the father of the state of Israel? *(Genesis 36:9 And these are generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir.)* Esau, is thou art in the scriptures, God hid him, the devil himself. Remember God is he and the Lord is one *John 8:24

  • Rahimi is a bigot who cannot be confused by facts.

  • DS

    While I respect your desire to distance the Jewish community from specious allegations of a religious disposition towards drug trafficking, beyond the fact that frankincense is known to be a powerful mood elevator (, there is in fact validity to the view that psychedelic drugs played a role in the progression of our mystical culture, much as they did in other cultures neighboring and around the globe.

    I refer you to the scholarship of Daniel Merkur, adjunct at the University of Toronto, which explores the presence of psychedelics in Tanakh and rabbinic literature. Just two examples:

    The Mystery of Manna

    The Essence of the Sabbath: Manna in Early Hasidism