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Given its well-known dangers, how can any Jew justify smoking?

cigarette butts 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cigarette butts 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Q Given its well-known dangers, how can any Jew justify smoking? - Brian P., Michigan A Your question bothers many people who cannot understand how so many Jews, particularly those who display tremendous piety in other realms, can reconcile this dangerous addiction with the Torah's ordinances against harmful behavior. This phenomenon becomes particularly painful in cases of loved ones whose addiction will ultimately kill them. After tobacco was introduced in Europe in the late 1500s, doctors considered it beneficial for health, especially against digestive and, ironically, respiratory diseases. While a few, including King James I of England, opposed smoking as sinister behavior (1609), it ultimately became socially acceptable among non-Jews and Jews alike. Particularly notable were hassidic rabbis who promoted smoking tobacco and snuff for spiritual purposes, for which they were scorned by their mitnaged opponents (Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics). The idling and sometimes decadent tobacco culture irked the famed R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (Poland, 1839-1933), who denounced smoking in his lesser-known writings as physically deleterious and a waste of time and money (Likutei Amarim Ch. 13). Yet smoking remained prevalent in study halls and homes alike. Before the contemporary era, smoking was most frequently discussed with regard to its permissibility on festivals. As opposed to Shabbat, when tampering with a flame is entirely forbidden, the rules of yom tov allow for kindling a fire from a pre-existing flame, although one is forbidden to create or extinguish a flame entirely (OH 511). One important condition, however, required using the flame for a purpose that is customarily enjoyed by the vast majority of people (shaveh lekol nefesh). Regarding smoking, many rabbis claimed that it is not enjoyed by the majority of people, especially first-time smokers who frequently cough and become disoriented (Hayei Adam 95:13). Yet smoking was historically permitted by most decisors, who cited its social acceptance and frequent recreational use as proof that it constitutes permissible use of a flame on yom tov (Biur Halacha 511:4). Other common questions included whether one must recite a blessing over tobacco, as one does with food (Mishna Berura 210:17), and if cigarettes contain hametz prohibited on Pessah. While a few physicians expressed concern with smoking in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was only in the 1950s that research definitively documented its deleterious effects on smokers and those around them, including a direct link to lung cancer. Since public health services began campaigns against tobacco, the number of new smokers has sharply declined, although the addictive nicotine within cigarettes makes it difficult for many to quit. One immediate consequence of the reduction in smokers related to the permissibility of smoking on yom tov. Since cigarettes no longer fall into the category of actions enjoyed by the majority of people, many contemporary decisors, including Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach, forbid smoking on yom tov. Most scholars also ruled that a person bothered by smoke may demand a smoker to refrain from smoking or to leave his area, even in public places or houses of study (Igrot Moshe CM 2:18). The major issue, however, relates to the permissibility of smoking at any time. The Torah commands us to "greatly beware for your souls" (Deuteronomy 4:15), admonishing us to avoid dangerous behavior. Maimonides contends that anyone who dismisses warnings of harmful behavior should receive lashes (Hilchot Rotzeah 11:5). In defining unacceptable behavior, the sages determined that risks which the multitude engage in remains permissible, citing the verse that "God protects the foolish" (Shabbat 129b). As such, defining dangerous activity remains contingent on the knowledge and behavior of the era. In a landmark responsum in 1976, Rabbi Haim David Halevi, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, banned cigarette smoking, contending that previous generations would have never permitted it had they known of its dangers (Aseh Lecha Rav 2:1). His public announcement received widespread attention here and around the world (it was covered on Page 2 of The New York Times). He forbade purchasing cigarettes for others (Aseh Lecha Rav 6:58), and even asserted that in light of the advances around the world against smoking, continued smoking in Israel represents a desecration of God's name (Aseh Lecha Rav 3:18). While in 1982 Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg similarly forbade smoking (Tzitz Eliezer 15:39), most decisors in the '80s refrained from prohibiting it, since the deleterious effects were not immediate, even as they forcefully discouraged smoking as an unhealthy habit (Igrot Moshe CM 2:76). As the effects of smoking have become better understood, however, the vast majority of rabbis, of all denominations, forbade smoking. Most recently, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv have joined those voices. Indeed, one can confidently say that today, every Jew has an obligation to help smokers kick the habit and prevent others from beginning. The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University. [email protected]