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Every Sunday school student knows Pessah for its ban on food that rises, but a growing number of Jews are asking whether the holiday also precludes them from getting high.
Hemp has increasingly been spotted on the list of kitniyot, or legumes, that Ashkenazi Jews abstain from eating during Pessah, according to several influential rabbinical Web sites, including kashrut.com. But not everyone agrees that hemp qualifies for the ban, and the debate has led many to question the definition of kitniyot.
While hemp isn't a kitchen staple for most people, hemp oil can be found in a number of hygiene products and in some alternative baked goods. But it's hemp's more notorious cousin, commonly known as marijuana, that has set the sparks flying. As debate over the kitniyot tradition has gathered steam among rabbinic circles, many are looking at hemp as a case in point of why the practice of abstention needs to be reexamined.
The ban on kitniyot during Pessah began because rabbis were concerned that certain legumes would come into contact with the grains forbidden during the holiday. Farmers often grew wheat and rice in adjacent fields, and families frequently stored all of their grains and legumes in the same containers. The kitniyot tradition only applies to Jews of Ashkenazi descent, since Sephardic Jewry never adopted the practice.
Of the dozen rabbis whom The Jerusalem Post questioned on this issue, none offered a conclusive statement about how hemp should be classified for Pessah. As Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Bat Ayin explained, the issue ultimately boils down to an individual decision by each rabbi about whether hemp seeds themselves could be considered edible. If a rabbi decides that the seeds are edible, then hemp - and, by extension, marijuana - would not be considered permissible for Pessah.
Israel's Green Leaf Party ("Aleh Yarok") said it was not taking any chances. Following an inquiry by the Post, a spokeswoman for the party said the group was sending out an e-mail to members warning them about hemp's possible kashrut problems.
"We are warning our people not to eat anything with hemp products if they follow the practice of kitniyot on Pessah," said party spokeswoman Michelle Levine. "We are considering announcing a ban on everything containing hemp just to be on the safe side. We are going with the rabbis on this. People should remove all cannabis and hemp from their homes."
Levine said one of the party's main arguments for cannabis legalization was biblical references to it.
"We would like to ask people... if it's listed as not kosher 'for Pessah,' [doesn't] that mean it must be kosher the rest of the year?" said Levine.
Hemp's tricky Pessah status has caused the first marital rift for Daniel and Sarah, who recently moved to Jerusalem from Chicago. The newlyweds, who asked not to use their last name, said they had just finished their Pessah cleaning when a friend asked them if he could buy the rest of their marijuana.
"We just had no idea what he meant. It turns out he was buying it from a lot of his observant friends so that they wouldn't have it in the house, [like] hametz," said Sarah. "We aren't habitual users, but we certainly smoke in our house, and we really aren't sure what our pipe may have come in contact with. It has caused a big crisis for us."
In the end, the two decided to quietly get rid of the rest of their marijuana (not by selling it to a friend, since it was kitniyot, and not hametz, they explained), and give their home one more cleaning before the holiday.
"There is no problem with hemp clothing, and of course, anything that is taken for medicinal purposes would be fine," said Kohn. "Many would look at it like cottonseed oil. There are a variety of opinions. If one considered it edible, then it is included in kitniyot."
On Monday, the religious court of the Shilo Institute issued a ruling that permits all Jews to consume kitniyot during Pessah. Rabbi David Bar-Hayim wrote the ruling, with Rabbis Yehoshua Buch and Chaim Wasserman co-signing.
The move is seen as a direct attack on the kitniyot tradition, as Bar-Hayim wrote that the current explanations for the custom were "unconvincing."
"Kitniyot is no longer applicable. It's a tradition people keep going because they want to extend a perimeter so far outside the actual law of Torah that they could not possibly violate the actual law," said Dan Sieradski, an editor at JewSchool.com who has been at work on a book on Jews and drugs for several years.
"Clearly, you can use hemp in food," he said. "You might mix it into brownies. You aren't going to make bread out of it."