Born in Warsaw, then part of the Russian Empire, Benet was fascinated with Polish peasant culture since her early youth. This interest eventually led her to enroll as a student of literature and philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities in the University of Warsaw, graduating with a degree in anthropology in 1935. She then attended graduate school at Columbia University, where she received her doctorate in 1944. Also at this time (1936) she first made known at a seminar in Warsaw her theory that "calamus" in the Bible is hemp.
Benet discovered that the Biblical plants or spices "kaneh" (Ez. 27:19; Is. 43:24; Ct. 4:14), "kaneh ha-tob" (Je. 6:20), and "kaneh-bosem" (Ex. 30:23), which are usually translated as "sweet calamus" or "sweet cane", were actually hemp. "Kaneh-bosem" was an ingredient of the holy anointing oil:
30:22 Moreover the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 30:23 Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus (Hebrew kaneh-bosem) two hundred and fifty shekels, 30:24 And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: 30:25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.
Based on similar words in cognate languages (Sanskrit śana, Assyrian qunnabu, Persian kenab, Arabic kanab) Benet concluded that "kaneh" and "kaneh-bosem" refer to hemp. In many ancient languages, including Hebrew, the root "kan" had a double meaning, both hemp and reed. The error originated from the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, in the third century B.C., where the terms "kaneh" and "kaneh-bosem" had been (mis)translated as "sweet kalamos". In the many Bible translations that followed, including Martin Luther's, the same error was repeated. Benet further claimed that the Scythians, who were described by Herodotus as ritual hemp users in the fifth century B.C., were at least one millennium older than has been previously assumed.
Sulah Benet's claim has found increased support in the academic community among lexicographers and botanists. The standard reference lexicons of Biblical Hebrew, and reference works on Hebrew Bible plants by scholars such as University of Jerusalem botanist Michael Zohary mention Benet's suggestion, while others argue the word refers to an either different species of hemp or a different plant entirely. Celsius (Hierobotanicon) has suggested sweet flag (Acorus calamus), which grows in Egypt, Judaea, and Syria, containing in its stalk a soft white pith with an agreeable aromatic smell, and forming an ingredient of the richest perfumes. Royle identified the "sweet cane" (A.V.) of Scripture (Is. 43:24; Je. 6:20) with the Andropogon calamus, a plant extensively cultivated in India, from which an oil, deemed to be the famous spikenard of antiquity, is extracted. According to Boissier (Flora Orientalis), "kaneh" was the common marsh reed, Arundo donax L. Some biblical scholars and botanists believe that the qaneh is probably sugarcane.
In Hebrew, "kanebas", "kanebiys", "kanebos" (קַנְבָּס, קַנְבִּיס, קַנְבּוֹס), derived from Greek "kannabis", first appear in the Mishnah (Kilayim 2:5; 5:8; 9:1, 5, 7). The Jerusalem Talmud (Kilayim 9:5, 32d) notes that while in mishnaic times hemp was an important commodity because of the difficulty of cultivating linen, in the days of the Amoraim linen replaced it.
Benet died in New York in 1982.
Her papers are held in New York University archives.
- Konopie w wierzeniach i zwyczajach ludowych (1936)
- Song, Dance, and Customs of Peasant Poland (1951)
- Festive recipes and festival menus (1957)
- Riddles of many lands Carl Withers, Sula Benet (1956)
- Early Diffusion and Folk Uses of Hemp (1967)
- Abkhasians: the long-living people of the Caucasus (1974)
- How to live to be 100: the life-style of the people of the Caucasus (1976)
- Sula Benetova 1936 Le chanvre dans les croyances et les coutumes populaires. Comtes Rendus de Séances de la Société des Sciences et des Lettres de Varsovie XXVII.
- Ernst Friedrich Karl Rosenmüller (1840), The Mineralogy and Botany of the Bible, The Biblical Cabinet, 27, Clark, p. 190
- Francis Brown, ed. (1906), "קָנֶה", Hebrew and English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, p. 889b
- Richard Elliott Friedman; Shawna Dolansky Overton; Louis Isaac Rabinowitz (2007), "PENTATEUCH", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 15 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 730–753, ISBN 0-02-865943-0
- Sula Benet (1975), "Early Diffusions and Folk Uses of Hemp", in Vera Rubin; Lambros Comitas (eds.), Cannabis and Culture (PDF), Moutan, pp. 39–49
- John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Calamus", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 2, Harper & Brothers, p. 17
- John McClintock; James Strong, eds. (1891), "Cane", Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, 2, Harper & Brothers, pp. 72–73
- Emil G. Hirsch (1906), "REED", in Isidore Singer; et al. (eds.), Jewish Encyclopedia, 10, p. 346b
- Ernest L. Abel (1980), Marihuana, the first twelve thousand years (PDF), Springer, p. 27, archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-10
- Marcus Jastrow (1903), "קַנְבָּס, קַנְבִּיס, קַנְבּוֹס", A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, 2, Luzac, p. 1388b
- Jehuda Feliks (2007), "HEMP", Encyclopaedia Judaica, 5 (2nd ed.), Gale, p. 805, ISBN 0-02-865933-3