Drugs in the Talmud

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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.

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.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on July 11, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.