Altars from 3rd century BCE temple compound in Tel Arad containing burned cannabis residue (Photo/Israel Museum)
Altars from 3rd century BCE temple compound in Tel Arad containing burned cannabis residue (Photo/Israel Museum)

Finding awe in the Days of Awe — with cannabis

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Last week marked the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul and the official run-up to the Jewish High Holidays. In Hebrew, the High Holidays are called Yamim Noraim, literally Days of Awe. Essentially, awe is the reason for the season! To get us there, Jewish tradition employs a host of spiritual technologies, from fasting to prayer … and maybe even weed?

In early 2020, archeologists at Tel Arad, a biblical-era shrine in Southern Israel (and scale model of the Temple in Jerusalem) made a radical discovery. A 2,700-year-old mixture of cannabis and cow dung was found in the hollows of two altars adorning the entrance of the shrine’s innermost sanctum (analogous to the Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of Holies, at the Temple in Jerusalem).

For ancient Israelites, there was no more sacred space. The Holy of Holies was viewed as God’s home on Earth, the literal center of the known world. Only the high priest could enter, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur, at the conclusion of the Days of Awe. To think that cannabis was part of that meeting of human and Divine, at least as it unfolded at Tel Arad, is mindblowing. And it wasn’t just any cannabis.

The residue found inside Tel Arad’s altars was rich in THC, the chemical responsible for the cannabis high. When burned alongside cow dung (which combusts slowly and at low temps), the mixture would have produced a potent cloud of psychoactive smoke. It appears the high priest may actually have been just that!

If the Days of Awe are to serve as an antidote to indifference, cannabis may be just what the doctor ordered.

Puns aside, as a rabbi who has spent the last decade working in the cannabis space, I see the connection. Consider that even the most exaggerated, stereotypical images of cannabis consumption reflect the plant’s capacity to elicit awe-inspiring experiences. A stoner takes a few puffs off a joint, and the mundane becomes magical — mediocre pizza is transformed into a delicacy, and a short hike feels like venturing into the Garden of Eden. When used with intention, cannabis can cultivate feelings of wonder and awe.

The late great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that all religions begin with awe; humans experience a taste of the ineffable, and then create religion in response. Heschel also recognized that humans can fall into an awe deficit. We pose for selfies in front of mountains instead of gazing at their beauty. We marvel at technology, more impressed by our own power than by nature. In short, we can become indifferent to even the most sublime of wonders.

If the Days of Awe are to serve as an antidote to indifference, cannabis may be just what the doctor ordered. For nearly 3,000 years, Jews have turned to the cannabis plant to meet a variety of needs — from wicks for Shabbos candles to roof material for Sukkot to medicine for the sick. Perhaps it is time to reclaim cannabis as a tool to cultivate awe. For those open to experimenting during this High Holiday season, here are some tips:

1. Dosage matters. The spiritual benefits of cannabis can be easily overshadowed by consuming too much. As with everything in life, moderation is key. For the inexperienced, visit a licensed dispensary and seek out microdose products (those with 2.5 milligrams or less of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis). 

2. Choose your setting carefully. Surround yourself with people you trust and whose presence lifts you up. Using cannabis in unfamiliar settings or around strangers may induce feelings of anxiety and paranoia. If this happens, don’t worry. Cannabis is incredibly safe, and any unpleasant feelings will pass with time. Take a walk, drink some water — and if you have access to CBD, use it! Studies have shown CBD can reduce cannabis’s psychoactivity.

3. Set a kavanah, or intention. Before imbibing, create an intention for your cannabis experience. You may wish to experience awe or a sense of inner peace or simply connect more deeply with a friend. Whatever your intention, state it aloud — even if nobody else is around.

Rabbi James Kahn and will be visiting San Francisco the weekend of Nov. 18 to speak at Congregation Sherith Israel in the Lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. Visit sherithisrael.org for more information. 

Rabbi James Kahn
Rabbi James Kahn

Rabbi James Kahn is an executive director at Holistic Industries.