(Hemp and the laws of Shabbat candles; July 2008, revised August 2008)
Many readers may have a cursory familiarity with the second chapter of Mishna Shabbat, the tractate of Mishna dealing with the laws of the Sabbath. In many synagogues, this chapter is customarily read by worshippers on the eve of the Sabbath to allow latecomers time to complete any prayers they may have missed.
The beginning of this chapter deals with the construction and kindling of the Sabbath lights. These lights were originally oil lamps, though wax candles have replaced oil in nearly all Jewish communities. Among other things, the
Mishna rules out fuels and wicks made of materials that burn unevenly or produce unpleasant smoke or odors.
In the third mMshna of the chapter, linen fibers are also forbidden because they may become ritually impure through proximity to a corpse. The medieval Spanish Jewish commentator Ovadia of Bartenura (known to students of the Mishna as “the Bartenura”) explains that fibers obtained from annuals-plants that must be grown from seed each year-are not subject to this concern and may be used freely as wicks for Sabbath lights. As an example of a fiber derived from an annual plant, he cites hemp. Writing in Hebrew, the Bartenura refers to this plant as “kanvos” (kuf nun vet vov samech). This word, recognizable in English as “canvas”, is derived from “cannabis”, the Latin name for the hemp or marijuana plant. Aside from its notoriety as a drug plant, cannabis has long been grown for use as a fiber. Canvas tents and sacks and hemp rope are familiar products derived from this species. The fiber has no pharmaceutical properties, and admirers of the Bartenura may rest assured that the joy his Sabbath lights inspired was not drug-induced.