Doctor Cannabis

Yosef Glassman Is an Amateur Historian of Biblical Weed Use

Ancient Roots: A drawing of a marijuana plant from 500 C.E.
lewenstein/wikimedia commons
Ancient Roots: A drawing of a marijuana plant from 500 C.E.

By Susie Davidson

Published December 07, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
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Glassman first presented his findings in late October during grand rounds — a medical teaching session — at the New England Sinai Hospital in Stoughton, Mass., where he is a physician. He has since gone on to give the same lecture to lay and medical professional audiences. “The goal is to educate practitioners on the rich cultural history behind the use of cannabis as a medicine, explain its mechanism of action, and dispel myths about its safety profile,” he said at one such presentation open to the public in Brookline, Mass. in November.

He explained that he had received no commercial support for his research, that no exhibitors were present, and sorry, but there were no free samples. “Not even in those brownies in the back?” joked one audience member.

In the talk, Glassman described finding several biblical references to the herb that include Book of Numbers 17:12-13, where Aaron the High Priest, “no pun intended,” probably burned marijuana as an incense offering “during a time of turmoil.” Other passages include God’s instructions to Moses to “take for yourself herbs b’samim” — herbs of medicinal quality — and instructions in Exodus to “take spices of the finest sort, pure myrrh, five hundred shekels, fragrant cinnamon, and ‘keneh bosem,’” which literally means “sweet cane,” but possibly refers to cannabis, said Glassman. “Keneh bosem” is also mentioned in the Song of Songs 4:14, Isaiah 43:24, Jeremiah 6:20 and Ezekiel 27:19. Another pronunciation is the Aramaic “kene busma,” which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is also the name of a modern reggae musician.

Glassman’s research revealed that cannabis may have been used as an anesthetic during childbirth in ancient Israel; he described an archaeological discovery of hashish in the stomach of the 1,623-year-old remains of a 14-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh. Maimonides was also an advocate of using cannabis oil for ailments such as colds and ear problems. “There are complex laws of plant mixing and hybridizing from the Talmud, which Maimonides comments on,” said Glassman. “Cannabis specifically was taken especially seriously in terms of mixing … and could, in fact, incur the death penalty. This shows me that apparently, cannabis was treated quite seriously.”

Ancient Jews weren’t the only people to use cannabis medicinally, of course. In his lecture, Glassman noted that cannabis has been used in Chinese medicine, as one of the 50 fundamental herbs, for 4,700 years; ancient Egyptians used it in suppositories and for eye pain; and Greeks made wine steeped with cannabis and used it for inflammation and ear problems.

Today, public support for medical marijuana has increased. Twenty-one U.S. states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the herb in some form, and recreational use of marijuana is legal in Colorado and Washington. Medical conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease and HIV are commonly treated with medicinal marijuana, yet Glassman said that physicians are still reluctant to recommend it, because federally it is still illegal.


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