I was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. I was there until I was almost 19, went to Cal State Northridge University, studied philosophy and psychology. Then I decided to take a trip, get out of California and find myself. I traveled all over Europe and then of course ended up in Israel, in a rabbinical school, where I actually was. I stayed there for 19 years. I went to university, became a rabbi, got married, started a family.
And then we were enlisted to go to Texas to do public relations – not exactly missionary work because we weren’t trying to convert anyone to Judaism; but to enrich life and strengthen the connection to people who are already Jews. I was involved in kosher certification before. When I got to San Antonio, I became the head of the local kosher agency. I got most of my education and experience there and when I left San Antonio for Houston I started my own kosher agency.
At this point, my five year old son was also diagnosed with a brain tumor. We went through the entire standard protocol of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. For a while he was on the mend. And then, a year later, he relapsed. We went through the options – which apparently involved choosing between different types of chemo. And my son didn’t get along well with chemo at all. Every possible side effect happened to him. Every single one. We practically lived in the emergency room during this protocol. It was terrible.
By the time he relapsed, we were doing research on cannabis: we heard that cannabis stimulates the appetite and we tried to make it eat. We tried to rehabilitate him after the brain operation because at the beginning he couldn’t move, couldn’t walk, couldn’t speak, and they had to put a tube into his stomach to eat. But he was slowly regaining his abilities and we heard that cannabis could stimulate the appetite, so we wanted to give it a try.
Rabbi Yaakov Cohen’s son Elisha, in Houston, Texas, 2013
Raquel Leyva / Courtesy
We flew to California and met with a doctor who gave us a prescription for raw cannabis flowers to be juiced. Because if you juice the raw flower, according to the doctor, it has all of the beneficial properties without the psychoactive effects. Due to our lack of knowledge and instruction, we have tried other forms of cannabis and my son experienced a few episodes with the psychoactive side – it was terrifying. We ended up on a cannabis farm where these two women helped us – Gd bless them.
So we juiced flower tips, got him CBD oils and he was really fine. However, we couldn’t stay in California and went back to Texas and the people on the farm agreed to send us the medicine. The first package came through.
The second was discovered by the government, which confiscated it and closed its farm.
Elisha, our beloved son, no longer received his medicine. He refused. We flew to Manhattan to do another experimental protocol, but before we could begin he went into a coma for about three months – and then died.
But then people came up to us and asked about cannabis treatments. Not Just Cancer Patients: Cannabis is by no means a panacea, G ‐ d forbids, but it’s great for relieving many types of symptoms. For example, I have a friend who has terrible migraines. He gets one at least once a month, and it blew him away for a week. It couldn’t work. No medicine would help him. Back in the day, the only thing that could help this man’s migraines was getting a tattoo. So he has tattoos all over his body. I’m not joking – maybe not literally all over my body, but it’s a lot of tattoos. And today? When he gets a migraine, he takes a drag on a vape pen and a gummy bear and then goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning – all right. I have a neighbor here in Texas who has lupus and it really is a huge help to her, but she can’t fly to Florida, Colorado and whatever every time she needs a prescription. I know a man who has a very extensive business in CBD oils. But he also works a few days at night and supplies cannabis products to people. And who do you think will call him? It’s not teenagers who party. It is old people, sick people, who bless him with tears in their eyes because they need this drug, it relieves their pain, it helps them sleep. So these are the kind of people I do this work for.
It started with one person here and one person there, but it quickly became apparent that there was a great need for it. It was my first contact with CannaKids in California: They make and sell potent cannabis products for children. The founder originally wanted to create cannabis treatment protocols for her own daughter, who also had a tumor. I went there, met them, we gave them certification, and then it started to branch out. The CBD market, of course, began to show that there should be kosher CBD products. We attended an MJBiz conference (MJBizCon) in Las Vegas and we just started offering kosher cannabis to people. A short time later we went to LinkedIn and it grew from there very quickly.
Why drugs have to be kosher
People hear “kosher food” and get some very special ideas. I myself do not agree to the use of leisure time. But I also can’t strictly limit my work to classic medical marijuana and exclude food. Because many people, for whatever reason, may not be able to get medical marijuana from where they live or when, for example, they are traveling and still have a need for cannabis. Also, different people ingest different chemicals differently. Some can take a pill; others need oils or inhalations; others can only properly achieve the desired medicinal effect through an edible substance.
Rabbi Yaakov Cohen at work in Mexico, 2018
And this is where kosher certification comes in. For many Jews, the legality or illegality of cannabis is only half the problem. The other half is, they have no way of knowing whether or not what they are consuming is kosher – whether its production complies with Jewish food laws.
As you read this you may be thinking – aren’t you? How can cannabis or a plant be kosher or not kosher? Kosher is all about pork and seafood and not about mixing meat and dairy, right? Well not exactly. Kosher laws determine what we can eat (cloven-hoofed animals like cows and marine animals with scales and fins like fish) and exclude everything else. Bugs, for example, are out – just like shrimp. So if you chew on raw cannabis leaves and those leaves are infested with insects and accidentally ingested them, that would be a downfall.
Fortunately, people don’t – the next thing they dry and smoke the flower tips, which isn’t a kosher problem. Any insects caught in the process will be burned and you won’t swallow them anyway. So that’s not a problem. The problem starts with more processed forms of cannabis. For example, gums and capsules: both are often made from gelatin, which is basically melted cow bones – or even pork bones. Not appetizing at first, but the problem for us is that even a hoofed animal is not kosher unless it has been ritually slaughtered. So if you are consuming cannabis in a gummy form, you have no way of knowing that the gelatin is kosher. We are currently working with four processing companies who are converting to pectin – that is vegetable, so it is in the company’s own interest: Nobody actually wants to eat melted bones, so pectin-based will appeal not only to Jews, but also to Jews for vegetarians, vegans, Hindus – and of course for Muslims who are already often looking for kosher labels, because if something is kosher, it is guaranteed to be halal. Oils like vaping oils or CBD are another problem as some oils are extracted with ethanol, which is derived from grapes – and there are quite a few kashrut laws that deal with grape-derived alcohol, as wine is important in Jewish is ritual that goes back to the temple. A kashrut label will also let you know that a different type of extraction was used.
A changing world
It’s not that Judaism hasn’t addressed cannabis beyond the kosher / non-kosher issue. There is some debate about whether weeds are specifically mentioned in the Torah. For example, a very important rabbi, Aryeh Kaplan, notes that among the spices they used in the oil with which they anointed the high priest was “Kanneh Bossem”, scented reed that Rabbi Kaplan claims could be cannabis. Archaeological digs in Israel, during which indigenous and local altars – Bamahs – were discovered, found traces of burned cannabis, presumably as an offering.
For me it goes even deeper. In Hebrew rabbinical thought, it is known that all weeds and herbs have been uniquely blessed with the ability to heal. And there you have these weeds of tremendous beneficial powers that have been ignored for centuries and then belittled and slandered and thrown aside. But as we learn from the Psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The world is changing – this rejected herb becomes the cornerstone of such a useful treatment that helps so many sick.
So you can say I’m on a mission. I want to make this drug available to more people – certainly people who would consider cannabis to relieve their pain, but hold back due to religious reasons or stigma. But I also want to help break through the barrier. I know this couple in my neighborhood whose baby had seizures like 300 seizures a day! We suggested that they try Charlotte’s web CBD. They said, “No, it’s cannabis, we went to a rabbi and he said no.” The seizures continued, the child suffered brain damage, the parents divorced because the father could no longer handle them, and that stigma, that prejudice, deeply damaged a child and broke up a family. It’s a terrible situation. There are innumerable stories like this. My mission is to remove the stigma and make this drug more widely available.
As Dimi Reider says.
Rabbi Yaakov Cohen heads the Whole Kosher Services certification body.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.