At a summer festival in upstate New York, attended largely by observant Jews, a 20-something yeshiva boy was handing out cholent, a traditional stew often eaten on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. "You may start to feel a little weird in about 20 minutes," the boy cautioned wryly as he served the mushy concoction of beans, vegetables and beef. Met with skepticism, he added, "Don't worry, it'll just get you into the spirit of Shabbos."
The cholent was made with cannabis oil, functioning in an important role on Shabbat. The religious prohibition against making fire on the Sabbath — the day of rest — prohibits observant ("shomer Shabbos") Jews from toking up sundown to sundown, Friday through Saturday. For those who want to medicate or get high, edibles are a necessity. And they'd better be kosher.
Unlike in New York, where a highly restrictive medical program encourages a robust black market that often conceals where and how the weed is grown, California's shomer Shabbos Jews have an advantage: They have access to a handful of brands and dispensaries offering kosher products, and can even know if their bud was grown in compliance with Jewish law.
Los Angeles alone has a number of kosher options. Koreatown Collective on Melrose, for instance, offers kosher gummy bears, brownies, chocolate, hard candy and even beef jerky. The collective's owner, Janice Hardoon, makes all the edibles herself and ensures that the kitchen is kosher, as well as the ingredients — and of course, no pork, no shellfish, no mixing meat and dairy. "Religious people trust us, they know I control the ingredients," Hardoon says. "Medicine is medicine, but if they have choices, they prefer choices."
Another brand called Gan-Jah goes so far as to ensure that the cannabis used to make its sweet, crunchy brittle is grown on a shomer Shabbos farm — meaning that nobody there does any work on Shabbat on other Jewish holidays. "If it's pouring rain on Shabbos, or like on Sukkos [fall harvest holiday], we refrain from doing any work until yom tov [holiday] is over," says Yerachmiel Johnson, founder of Gan-Jah. "Sometimes people in the industry think we're nuts, dealing with such a valuable crop, sitting and watching rain pour on it when you could be taking it inside. It's a true testament to our faith."
Everyone involved from the growing of the crop to manufacturing and packaging the edibles — in a kosher kitchen with all kosher ingredients — is frum or religious, he says. Cannabis bud itself is kosher by default, like lettuce, so long as it's free of insects, and the brittle is not only kosher but also parve (vegan), so people won't need to worry about mixing meat with milk products.
The brand name itself combines the Hebrew word for garden (gan) with the Rastafarian name for God (Jah). "It means Garden of God," Johnson says. "I do think there's a place in Jewish practice for cannabis. Everything has its sacred purpose at the right time."
So while cannabis has spiritual components, there's debate whether it should be used to pray. Technically, Judaism says one should have a clear, sober mind during prayer. However, for some cannabis facilitates or enhances their connection to God.
"If you ever walk through an outdoor ganja garden, there's a 'natural mystic' blowing through the wind," says Johnson, who quotes Bob Marley. "I wish we could appreciate the sun, the soil, the blessings we have all around us. Ganja helps us realize this, and that's God. It opens up some doors of perception that are here."
Cannabis is mentioned multiple times throughout the Torah, or Jewish Bible. For starters, the Hebrew term kaneh-bosem translates to cannabis. It was used in holy anointing oil, while hemp was used in a variety of religious objects: Shabbat candle wicks, prayer shawls (talit), ritual knotted fringes worn by men (tzitzit), and the roof coverings (schach) for the temporary, outdoor huts built on the holiday of Sukkot. "One will beautify [Shabbat candle lighting] when the wick is made from cotton, flax or cannabis," reads the Shulchan Aruch, or Code of Jewish Law.
Also, because cannabis is included in the category of kitnyos, which means it's prohibited to eat during Passover, "One thus might assume that it was also consumed, perhaps as food, during the remainder of the year," according to doctor and researcher Yosef Glassman. Last year, however, Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky declared cannabis was kosher for Passover for medical marijuana patients. He said the plant had a healing scent and gave it the same blessing customary for "different types of spices."
"A midrash [ancient commentary on the Torah] talks about King Solomon and on his grave is growing marijuana," says L.A.-based Orthodox Rabbi Simcha Green, who points out his name incidentally means "Happy Green." "The problem is that nobody knows where King Solomon's grave is."
Beyond religious literature, Jews have a long and varied history with cannabis, says Rabbi Green's son, Elie Green, founder of Doc Green's cannabis topicals, another shomer Shabbos company. He points to leaders in the cannabis movement, from Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who discovered THC, to Jack Herer, namesake of a cannabis strain and author of hemp bible The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Many Jews have even applied the value of tikkun olam (Hebrew for "repair the world") to marijuana law reform. A cannabis-themed Passover seder last year put the story of Jews' slavery and escape from Egypt in conversation with the Drug War as a modern form of oppression.
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Nonetheless, the demand for kosher edibles is still somewhat niche. Green says that most are still made mom-and-pop–style in a collective's kosher kitchen to provide for L.A.'s Orthodox community. On the other hand, larger brands like Utopia Farms, are incidentally kosher-compliant but don't intentionally target a Jewish clientele.
"Kosher is a way to define quality and purity. That falls really in line with our own brand," says Kaiya Bercow, Utopia Farms' co-founder. "Everything produced is inspected and tested prior to going out. There's a strict due diligence that goes into the process." Utopia's kosher, vegan macaroons are available in dispensaries across L.A. and the state.
As legalization takes hold and cannabis becomes more normalized, kosher pot products may likely become more commonplace — whether people want medicine guaranteed to be without non-kosher products like gelatin, or whether simply, they're looking for more ways to get into the "spirit of Shabbat."