This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Pushing Torah*

News Item:

July 2001. Canada became the world's first country to regulate the use of marijuana, as legislation came into force which allows people with serious illnesses to possess marijuana.

The Canadian government's recent decision to permit the medicinal use of marijuana brought to mind a jarring experience I had several months ago when, in the course of my daily routine of Talmud study, I stumbled across the following passage:

Rav instructed his son Hiyya: Do not take drugs.

My initial reaction was to presume that I had mistranslated the crucial term. However, a perusal of Rashi's commentary confirmed my first reading. Rashi paraphrases Rav's instruction as: "Don't learn to take drugs, because they will become a habit, and eventually turn into an obsession, until you end up spending all your money on them."

Rabbenu Hananel of Kairowan explained the matter in a similar spirit: "Because your body will become habituated to them."

Now I am not suggesting that Hiyya had a problem with narcotic addiction. Rav's advice does not seem to be directed at substances that were inherently injurious or debilitating, and I am not aware of such substances being mentioned in the traditional sources. In fact, although the Talmud makes occasional reference to cannabis, it seems to know only of its usefulness for the manufacture of hemp.

Rav's concern was for excessive reliance on legitimate medications. The medieval halakhic authority Rabbi Menahem Ha-Me'iri placed Rav's admonition within the context of other warnings against overindulgence in physical pleasures. Such worries are rooted in the fear that after being initiated into those delights, a person will eventually become unable to give them up.

Rashi's grandson Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) spelled out the practical implications of Rav's statement: Even as part of medical treatment, one should try to avoid drugs if an alternative form a therapy is available.

An alternate interpretation proposed by Rashi formulates the issue in slightly different terms, citing a talmudic saying to the effect that most foods that are normally beneficial are likely to have harmful side-effects.

Indeed, the Jewish sages were well aware that medicine must be taken with caution, and that indiscriminate consumption of drugs might prove injurious or fatal. This premise formed the basis for some powerful symbolic interpretations in the Midrash.

For example, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi noted that in the well-known verse in Deuteronomy (4:44) "And this is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel," the Hebrew verb that is translated as "set" is sam, a homonym of the noun denoting "drug." This word-play becomes the basis for a bold analogy: "If the one who receives it is deserving, then the Torah becomes a life-giving medicine. If however the person is not deserving, then it becomes a poison [literally: "a drug of death"].

Rabbi Joshua's homily may have originated in a polemical context, and might be aimed at Christians or other heretics who (from the rabbis' perspective) had appropriated for themselves the text of Israel's Torah, but had in reality perverted its spirit. Such people, the rabbi admonishes, will derive no benefit from the sacred scripture; on the contrary, it will be the source of their undoing.

It is also possible to interpret Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's words as a denunciation of Jews who study the Torah without the proper religious intentions or motivations. Accordingly, he reminds his audience that even the holy Torah is not an unfailing panacea for every spiritual illness. Much depends on the condition of the patient. Just as people who swallow the wrong prescriptions may well end up forfeiting their lives, so too the study of Torah by those who do not have the adequate spiritual qualifications can lead to fatal consequences.

The same brand of imagery underlies the seemingly bizarre behaviour of a certain peddler in ancient Sephoris who used to circulate among the surrounding villages announcing "Whoever wants to buy a wonder-drug, come and get it!"

When Rabbi Yannai tried to take him up on his offer, the seller assured him that the sage had no need for the product.

Eventually, after he saw that Rabbi Yannai was not about to relent, the "pusher" reluctantly showed him his merchandise. He pulled out a volume of Psalms and began reciting the chapter that opens "What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile."

Yes, the wonder-drug that this dealer was hawking was a moral virtue, the ability to guard one's tongue and refrain from gossip or slander.

Rabbi Loeb of Prague (the Maharal) expanded upon this theme, citing several rabbinic sources that equate human life with the uniquely human power of rational speech. It follows, therefore, that a person who desists from evil speech can be said to be in possession of a life-giving medicine. On the other hand, those who abuse that power by indulging in inappropriate talk are poisoning their spirit with dangerous drugs; as it says in the book of Proverbs "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

These metaphoric expositions of the phenomenon of drug use give novel meaning to Karl Marx's assertion that "religion is the opiate of the people."

Of course, the militant atheist had no idea how close his words came to capturing the rabbis' profound insights into the power and perils of spiritual learning.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Ask Now of the Days that Are PastAsk Now of the Days that Are Past


University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressAugust 30, 2001, p. 12.

  • Bibliography:
    • Preuss, J. Julius Preuss' Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Translated by Fred Rosner. 2nd ed. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1978.