Cannabis and the joys of biblical Hebrew!

Let’s talk about cannabis!

No, not the actual plant. I’m far more interested in its cool etymology.

Do you know that “cannabis” comes from the Hebrew word “קנבוס” (“KaNaBoS”)?

And קנבוס actually comes from the ancient Biblical term, “קנה בשם” (“KaNeH BoSeM”), one of the ingredients of the anointing oil delineated in Exodus 30:23!

“KaNeh Bosem” was a pungent and aromatic stalk plant used to soak in the sacred oil, most likely hemp.

The Hebrew root קנה (“KaNeH”) means a reed or stalk, as in the thick stalk of a hemp plant.

Amazingly, this word found its way to countless other languages, from Syriac word ‘qunnappa,’ to Arabic ‘kunnab,’ Greek ‘kannabis,’ and Latin ‘canabum.’

The original pot-smokers are thought to be the ancient Scythians, who are believed to have adopted the name for cannabis from their Semitic neighbors, our Hebrew-speaking ancestors.

However, cannabis isn’t the only English word that comes from the Biblical root “KaNeH.”

That’s just the beginning.

Latin “canna” derived from there, and came to mean a reed or pipe.*

Here’s a partial list of some of the modern English words that are believed to be cognates of Hebrew “KaNeh”:

  1. Cane. It’s reed-like. That’s right! Important human staples sugar cane** and cannibus are both from Hebrew.
  2. Candy. From the cane of sugar cane.
  3. Cannon. Also shaped like a hollow reed.
  4. Gun. Believed to be a phonetic variation of cannon. “G” and “C” are both guttural-palatal.
  5. Canal. Shaped like a pipe or groove.
  6. Channel. Same as canal.
  7. Canyon. A long narrow valley, like a groove.
  8. Canoe. A hollowed shaft of a tree or giant reed.
  9. Canvas. Sturdy cloth made from fibrous stalk of hemp, cannabis.
  10. Canon. Law, standard used for judging. Long, straight reeds were used as measuring rods.
  11. Canonize. To admit as authoritative by law.
  12. Cinnamon. From Hebrew KiNaMoN, it’s also believed to be a cognate of KaNeH, since the aromatic bark is shaped like a reed.
  13. Cannoli. From Italian cannolo, hollow tube or reed.
  14. Canister. A tubular container, like a hollow reed. Or perhaps from reed wicker basket.
  15. Can. From canister.

Can you now understand how wonderfully versatile this Hebrew root “KaNaH” is?

Yes you can!

But the “reed” meaning of קנה is just the tip of the iceberg.

The root קנה KaNah actually has many other cognates in Biblical Hebrew. Here are some of them:

  1. KaNeh קנה can also mean windpipe or trachea, like a hollow read.
  2. KaNah קנה as a verb means to acquire or to affix in place (like a reed).
  3. KaN קן means a nest, or that which is fixed in place.
  4. MiKNeh מקנה, livestock that you acquired.
  5. KaYiN קין means a spear, like a sharp reed.
  6. KiNah קנה and לקונן might mean a dirge that is fixed in regular or rigid stanzas.
  7. KaNeh קנה was a branch of the candelabra (Menorah), like a reed or pipe.
  8. KaN? קנא means jealousy, one who is fixated on something, like a reed firmly standing implanted in the earth.
  9. TiKeN תקן means to fix or affix something.
  10. K’NaS קנס means a fixed penalty or fine in Mishnaic Hebrew.

So as you can clearly see, Hebrew KaNah has truly come full circle. From cannabis, candy, canoes, canyons and cannons, you have Biblical Hebrew to thank for all those words.

Next time you hear researchers tout the health benefits of cannabis, remind them of the all wonderful linguistic and spiritual benefits of Biblical Hebrew, the language that gave us “cannabis” and much more!

Next time you taste that candy, savor the sweetness of the Holy Tongue.

The world’s most ancient language that’s very much a vibrant language to this day… in the study halls, synagogues, and even on the streets of Jerusalem.

The language of the Book, still spoken by the People of the Book…

The language of our ancestors, the language of our children, and the language of our destiny. Our past, present and future.

A timeless tribute to a timeless language!

Who needs cannabis? Experience the joys of Lashon Hakodesh!

Addendum:

As modern science rediscovers the ancient benefits of cannabis, could it be that this rediscovery is a harbinger of another awesome rediscovery that is yet to come in the imminent future, that of the sacred anointing oil? This holy oil that Moses made, the “שמן משחת קודש,” has been in hiding since the days of King Yoshiyahu in circa 445 BCE (see Talmud, Horayot 11b, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Beit Habechira 4:1), along with the Holy Ark and several other sacred items, which are destined to be rediscovered in the time of the Future Redemption. If cannabis is indeed the ingredient referred to as קנה בשם, “KaNeH BoSeM,” the pungent stalk listed in Exodus 30:23, the resurgence of cannabis in contemporary times would be a most fitting prelude to the discovery of the ancient oil that stores the fragrance of that original KaNeh BoSeM that Moses prepared 3,330 years ago!

Notes:

* Although a pipe can be used for smoking cannabis, it isn’t clear whether the Romans ever used pipes for that purpose. The main idea is that a pipe (“canna”) is shaped like a hollow reed, קנה KaNeH.

** “KaNeH” actually refers to sugar cane in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 43:24 & Jeremiah 6:20.

*** Sources: dictionary by Dr David Kolinsky, E-Book by Professor Isaac Mozeson, and “Words Come in Families” by Edward Horowitz, PhD. See also “An Etymologically Guided History to Cannabis” by Brian Grimmer.

About the Author
Michoel Green loves teaching & writing. Ordained in NY, he has over twenty-five years experience in Jewish outreach & education. Formerly a rabbi in Poway, California and Brisbane, Australia, he currently directs the Chabad Center in Westborough, Massachusetts. A published author, he blogs and lectures widely on themes pertaining to Torah and contemporary thought, with special emphasis on the final Redemption and its unmistakable signposts in current times.
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