The Mikra and Intoxication.

By
Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi

When discussing intoxication one should bear in mind that this matter also covers the recreational use of drugs. When we examine the Mikra (Scripture) to find an answer to any question we should ask ourselves certain questions such as, "Is it in keeping, or does it go against the written word of the Mikra?" "Does it contravene the principle of a miswa (commandment)?" The Tora is self-explanatory and the meaning of all its parts can be discovered by the exegetical approach on the basis of the scripture alone. "Study Scripture carefully and do not accept blindly the opinions of others." There is however one prerequisite for understanding the Tora: piety. The Tora will yield its secrets to him only who seeks and searches with earnestness, with his heart directed towards heaven. One of the fundamentals of Karaism is that the Mikra must be understood according to the Peshat, that is the "plain meaning". The Plain Meaning does not mean literal interpretation; it means interpreting in accordance with the rules of the Hebrew language and the textual context. This also means that we must put aside our personal feelings. If we approach the Mikra with a preconception in our heads we will never arrive at the Truth, for we will be searching for passages in the Mikra to back up our already conceived ideas and notions.

Any answer based upon an understanding taken from the Mikra should be backed up by the relevant Biblical verse. If one cannot find an actual verse or passage in the Mikra that states, "You shall not do...." or "You may...." then one has to fall back upon the only option that is then left, and that being Hekkesh (Analogy). One can use the concept of Hekkesh when it comes to cannabis by equating cannabis with wine and other intoxicants; this is legitimate, (this I will come back to later).

When it comes to the use of cannabis, one might argue that its use is wrong because certain cultures use drugs in their religious ceremonies. This is not a valid argument, for the Aztecs used cocoa in their religious ceremonies that does not mean that we should stop drinking cocoa. The fact that the use of cannabis in the U.S. is against the law of the land is not a legitimate argument either. In many countries in Europe cannabis has already been decriminalised, and this is not a legitimate argument for its use. Neither of these arguments means that according to the Mikra cannabis is or is not permitted. In many countries alcohol is illegal and in many countries it is legal, but this does not affect the halakhic understanding of the Mikra when it comes to alcohol.

We can see from the following passage in the Tora that deals with the Second Tithe that the drinking of intoxicants is permitted:

"You shall tithe, tithe all the produce of your seed, that the field brings forth year (by) year. And you shall eat before YHWH your God, in the place that he shall choose to have his name dwell there, the tithe of your grain of your new-wine and of your fresh-oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your flocks, in order that you shall learn to revere YHWH your God all the days. And if the way shall be too great from you, so you are not able to carry it, because the place shall be too far from you, which YHWH your God shall choose to place his name there, because YHWH your God shall bless you. You shall give in silver, and you shall bind the silver in your hand, and you shall go to the place that YHWH your God shall choose. And you shall give the silver for all that your soul/life force craves, for cattle and for flock and for wine and for intoxicant, and for all that your soul/life force shall ask you, and you shall eat there before YHWH your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. And the Lewi [Levite] that is within your gates you shall not abandon him, for he has no part and inheritance with you." (Deut. 14:22-27)

The Mikra does not forbid the use of intoxicants but limits their use and shows that drunkenness was one of the major vices of antiquity. Well-known cases of intoxication are Nowah [Noah] (Gen 9:21), Lot (19:33-35), Naval (1Sam 25:36), Uriyya [Uriah] (2 Sam 11:13), Amnon (13:28), Ela (1Kings 16:9), and Ben-Hadhadh [Ben-Hadad] (20:16). Even the women were guilty (Amos 4:1). The symptoms and effects of strong drink are vividly pictured (Job 12:25; Ps 107:27; Isa 28:7; Hos 4:11). While the Mikra condemns intemperance in the strongest terms, it does not prescribe total abstinence as a formal and universal rule. In certain circumstances the use of alcohol is prohibited i.e. when the Kohen is on duty (Lev. 10:9) and also to the Nazir [Nazirite] (Num. 6:3-4).

Proverbs has the following to say on drunkenness:

"Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags." (Prov. 23:20-21)

This does not say we cannot drink wine or eat meat, but that we should not over indulge.

"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise." (Prov. 20:1)

Again over indulgence.

"It is not for kings, O Lemuel--not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more." (Prov. 31:4-7)

This is saying that for kings, rulers and judges the matters of the State and the protection of the afflicted comes before personal pleasure. It also states that wine and beer is okay as a means of alleviation.

The Book of Ben-Sira, a Sadducean work from the 3rd century b.c.e. states:

"Sit not at all with another man's wife and revel not with her at the wine, lest your heart incline to her, and so through desire you fall into destruction." (Ben-Sira 9:9)

Ben-Sira does not state that it is wrong to drink intoxicants at all, but that it is wrong to drink intoxicants in a situation whereby the drinking of intoxicants could lead one to sin.

An example of this in the Tora itself is the "rebellious child" in Deuteronomy 21:20 whose parents accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard who is not willing to reform; in modern terms this boy is a junky. So getting drunk is frowned upon whereas drinking wine in moderation is not. Assuming moderate use of cannabis does not hamper one's ability to have self control and distinguish right from wrong it would be permissible. As far as other drugs go, such as Heroine and Opium, to the best of my knowledge these drugs can cause a person to lose his sense of judgement and/or self-control causing him to be a danger to himself and others; therefore these drugs are obviously forbidden. There is also the issue of using drugs while driving or operating heavy machinery. Using cannabis as with alcohol while driving a car or operating heavy machinery can seriously endanger the lives of others and therefore would be forbidden. But so would driving a car after taking anti-histamines or sleeping pills because this also puts you in serious danger of hurting someone; yet antihistamines and sleeping pills are not in and of themselves forbidden. When it comes to drugs we must remember that if one chased after something all day long then he/she could be putting that above YHWH and could be accused of having another god. For the definition of an 'Idol-worshiper' is anyone that worships a false god or places something else other than YHWH as the greatest value, such as money, power or pleasure, and that something is exalted as the highest good.

It is a misnomer to think that if wine is misused it cannot kill one except over years of abuse and that drugs can kill one in a short time. This is simply not correct. A person can drink so much alcohol during one 'binge' that they can end up with alcohol poisoning and go into a paralytic coma. Certain drugs, such as heroin, can kill one from an over dose but cannabis cannot.

After looking through the entire Mikra I have found only one incident that refers to drugs, and that is a reference to mandrakes (see Gen. 30:14-16). Mandrake, which is a member of the Nightshade family, is a narcotic and a sedative. However, just because the Matriarchs and Patriarchs used mandrake does not mean that the use of them are okay. There are many things that the Matriarchs and Patriarchs did that became forbidden after the giving of the Tora. For instance Ya'akov [Jacob] married two sisters, Lea [Leah] and Rahel [Rachel] an act that became forbidden once the Tora had been given, "And a woman to her sister you shall not take, to annoy (her) to uncover her nakedness besides her in her life (time)." (Lev. 18:18) Avraham married Sara his half-sister (see Gen. 20:10-12) an act that also became forbidden once the Tora had been given: "The nakedness of the daughter of your father's wife born to your father, she is your sister you shall not uncover her nakedness." (Lev. 18:11)